This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.
For Warren Webster and his Organization, the “Gay 90’s” were years of hard work and growth. Said my father: “I did most of the selling out in the field from 1888 to 1912 or 1914. And how I loved it! I used to take all the problems and trouble which arose and work them out and I got a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from it, because it was the practical results which counted.”
It was during these years of traveling, investigating, selling, manufacturing and installing that he had some of his most interesting experiences.
“One of the early installations,” said he, “was at the Pencoyd Iron Works, where I put in two feedwater heaters. On the first I had to take the steam one hundred feet in an 8-inch pipe—one hundred feet from a 2000-horsepower machine in that small pipe. I knew that I could bring it through by vacuum line attachment. On the second line I put a vacuum attachment and brought it right over. The safety valve on the boiler blew off and all were delighted. And,” he added with a smile, “so was I.
“Another early installation was that at the Phoenixville Iron Co., at Phoenixville, Pa. We put a machine in there and it burst—blew the side of the building out. The thin part of the metal was on that side. If it had blown out the other side it would surely have injured me.
“On investigation I found the trouble was due to their use of an old back-pressure valve, which I hadn’t furnished. This valve was supposed to be working all right, but it stuck and this caused an accumulation of pressure within the heater which it couldn’t carry.
“I put on a relief valve and that improved it. I then put on a vacuum-breaker on the other side. Previously when there was too much of a pull, the water-pump couldn’t take the water. The vacuum had to be broken. That was a wonderful installation!
“Sometimes the going was rather tough. Take the installation at the Morris & Cass Paper Co., Tyrone, Pa., for instance. The equipment was due to go into operation at midnight one Sunday. It was bitterly cold and snowing hard and the roof of the building in which the machine was to be installed was not completed. Tom Geoghegan and I worked until two in the morning before we were satisfied the installation was all right. We were both numb from the cold. I had actually to be assisted to the hotel. But that was the kind of service we gave and it resulted in satisfied customers and more business.
“It was around that time,” continued Warren Webster, “that we received complaints from the Youngstown Iron & Steel Co., of Youngstown, Ohio, regarding a Webster Feedwater Heater which had recently been furnished them. Tom Geoghegan went out to investigate the matter, but he had barely time to reach Youngstown before I received the following telegram from him:
‘Manager of Mill wild. Will not allow me to investigate. Has ordered heater removed. Sorry I can do nothing with him. Can you come out?’
“I wired ‘Yes, am coming out by next available train.’ When I arrived at the mill office, the manager greeted me with a good deal of profanity, ending—’So you are the boy who invented this thing, are you? It is the worst contraption that ever came into this place.’
“I said, ‘I will tell you one thing. Now, you have condemned it, I am going to stay right here until that machine does the work it is intended to do.’
“He interrupted me with: ‘You are going to stay here, you say? I said, ‘Yes, if you will permit me, I will make that machine work.’
“Then he asked: ‘How do you know what is wrong with it?’
I replied, ‘I don’t, but I will find out. I have never yet failed to overcome every difficulty that got in the way of that machine.’
“He said: ‘You don’t think much of yourself, do you?’ ‘I have confidence in the machine,’ I replied, ‘All I ask is two days’ time and I will show you what it can do.’ He said, ‘By God, boy, I’ll see that you have the time you ask.’
“With that Geoghegan and I went out into the plant. There were three engines, running intermittently, connected to the feedwater heater. The only thing to do was to bring the three pipes together into one reservoir sufficiently large to take the exhaust of the three engines combined, and when there was insufficient steam to supply all, to have a check-valve stop the air coming in from the top.
“It took us about a week to do this, but I stayed there until it was done and accepted. And would you believe it? The same man who gave me such a bad reception drove me in his own carriage over to another mill and boomed me so highly that they gave me an order before I left the premises. He and I were quite friendly after that. I realized he was man enough to admit when he was mistaken.
“Not long after this, we had trouble with another steel and iron mill at Cleveland. We had installed a 3000-horsepower machine at this mill, with a $500 forfeiture if it didn’t prove satisfactory. They claimed it wasn’t working satisfactorily and ordered it taken out. In accordance with my fixed policy, I went out to investigate the cause of the trouble.
“I said: ‘I’m out here to make that machine work, and it will work before I’m through.
“The manager, who was more courteous than my Youngstown friend, said: ‘I don’t know what you can do, young man, but you seem to have a lot of nerve.’
“I said: ‘I know what I am doing. I’m the daddy of that machine, and if I can’t fix it, you will get your check for $500. I’m the boss and I can promise this.’
” ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you go ahead. What do you want to do?’
“I said: ‘I want the privilege of having you or your engineer take me out to the installation and answer the questions I ask regarding conditions. I will be here all day until I locate the difficulty.’
“Tom Geoghegan was with me on this job also. We looked over the data pertaining to the engines and we found the connections were such that we couldn’t put water in the heater because it would throw back-pressure on the engine. The machine got ‘air-bound’ and the first day we couldn’t get any results at all. However, walking around the plant next day, I found they had a condensing engine about 125 feet from our machine. The condensing engine carried 22 to 24 inches of vacuum on the vacuum side of the condenser. I got them to allow me to run a 5-inch pipe from the condenser (as a vacuum line attachment) to the heater above the water-line, to get the air that was liberated from the water out of the machine so that more steam could come in. I put that in, and it worked beautifully.
“This was the first Vacuum Line Attachment to Webster Feedwater Heaters—and I patented it.
“In 1893,” said Warren Webster, “shortly before we occupied the new factory in Camden, we placed a Webster Feedwater Heater on exhibition at the Columbia World Exposition at Chicago. A number of competitors also exhibited their equipment. Ours was a 3000-horsepower machine and the largest one there. It was installed and supervised in its operation by a Webster representative and it made the best record. It was displayed in operation—not heating, but just handling the feedwater for the boilers. It produced 210° F as an average with full steam. This was about 1000-horsepower above its rated capacity.
“The Kansas Electric Light Company wanted to buy it on the spot, but I told them we couldn’t deliver it until the Fair was over. If they wanted it then, they could have it. They bought it on those terms.
“The machine won the award of merit which now hangs on the wall at our plant.”
One very pronounced facet of my father’s character was his appreciation of worth. A man need not be an artist, an author, a composer, a doctor or a lawyer to excite his admiration. He saw the art in craftsmanship no matter how simple or every-day that craft might be. He appraised character by honesty, industry and loyalty—could always be won by loyalty. Between him and many of the employees of his younger days existed a really beautiful and personal friendship.
Elsewhere I have quoted his opinion of Tom Geoghegan and of Candlass. Then there was Tom Weir, a fighting Celt, George Johnson, long foreman of the Wrought Iron Department, and many others. Last, but by no means least, was Ed Stein. Talking of Stein, my father said:
“Ed Stein was a Russian Jew, one of the most loyal men I have ever had. None was more loyal than he.
“The way he happened to come to us, was this: He used to go around, with a box on his back, doing jobs of replacing broken glass windows. One especially severe winter’s day I looked out of the window of our office and saw him standing on the sidewalk with the snow falling on him. He had been walking about trying to get an odd job or two and he looked cold and discouraged.
“I opened the door and told him to come in out of the snow and get warm. He came in and looked around at the shop and after a little while said: ‘I’d just love to get a job where I could go in every day and do a day’s work—and have a home nearby and go to that home instead of walking all over the country.’
Then he added: ‘This is the first kindness anyone has shown me, so I want to fix up some of your glass.’
“I said, ‘Why we haven’t done anything—just invited you in. We do that to anybody.’
“Looking over to where some machines were being finished, he said: ‘I’d like to have a chance to finish one of those. That rough casting work—I’d like to show you how I can smooth it down, if you will let me?’
“I said, ‘You shall have the chance—and you will start tomorrow morning.’
“I tried him out the next day and he did it beautifully, much better than our regular man. His faith did not permit him to work on Saturdays, but he worked on Sundays and acted as watchman, too. He worked for us for twenty years—until his death. I thought a lot of him.’
“I was in Pittsburgh,” said Warren Webster, “at our district office, and the manager had just received an inquiry for a Feedwater Heater from a glass plant located in West Virginia. I said to our Pittsburgh manager, ‘I’ve never been down through that country. I would like to look it over, so I will answer this inquiry. If I make the sale, you will get your full commission.’
“I went down to a little ‘one-horse’ town. There was no hotel, so I stopped at one of the boarding-houses. I got down there about ten in the morning and went right over to the prospect’s plant.
“I was met by a Santa Claus-like old fellow with a long white beard. When I showed him the inquiry we had received, he turned me over to his mechanical engineer, a young fellow just graduated.
“I said to the engineer, ‘I would like to inspect the plant before I can specify definitely the size machine you need here.’
Then later, after we had walked around the plant, I told him: ‘You need a machine of such-and-such a size. It will cost you $1200 delivered here, subject to sixty days’ trial. If for any reason you don’t wish to accept it at the end of that time, you have the privilege of shipping it back with no charge to yourself.’
“He said, ‘Why, I could make a machine that would do just as good work for half that price—not more than $600.’
“I said, ‘Well, now, that is remarkable. I’ve been the daddy of this machine for a great many years and have put machines in the biggest plants in the United States. If you can do what you say, you are too valuable to remain down in this country. I could use you in our business. Have you ever made any machines of this sort?’
“He replied, ‘No, but I have all the theory. There (pointing to the wall) is my diploma.’
“I said, ‘I don’t think your boss appreciates you as much as he should and I am going over there and tell him what a smart young fellow he has—I’m going to tell him what you said to me.’
“He replied, ‘Well, it won’t do you any good—he’ll only refer you back to me.’ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘if he does, I’ll be back!’
“So I went over to the old gentleman’s office and he asked:
‘Well, how did you make out over there with Charlie?’
“I repeated what had passed between the engineer and myself, and added: ‘Now, my proposition to you is this: I will furnish you a machine. It will cost you $1200. If you can produce any machine inside of sixty days that can be put alongside of this machine, both connected on the main exhaust pipe, that will show equal results to mine, then you can ship mine back and I will forfeit $500. I’m the daddy of that machine and all the features are patented. You can’t duplicate that machine. You may duplicate the results but not the specific construction without infringing the patents.’
“He said, ‘I get your point. Now, I notice you have named the Wheeling Steel Works, which is the nearest plant to this, as reference.’
“I replied that was so and that I would be glad to have him call them on the ‘phone. This he did, and they gave him an excellent report on our machines. Then he rang for the engineer.
“He asked him: ‘Charlie, did you tell Mr. Webster you could build a machine for $600 that would do just as good work as the one he is offering us at $1200? Have you ever built any?’
“The engineer said, ‘No, but I have the theory.’
“I said, ‘You know this machine is patented in all details. If you duplicated it you would infringe the patents.’
“Then the old gentleman broke in: ‘Look here, Charlie, you have got enough problems here without adding experiments. Give Mr. Webster our order for the machine and ask him to have it here as soon as he can.’
“I dictated rny proposition on the terms I had previously mentioned and got the old gentleman’s signature. The machine was installed and duly paid for—and we never had any trouble whatever.”
While its population hovered far below the hundred thousand mark, the name of “Camden, New Jersey” was carried into homes in every quarter of the world on the labels of two widely varying products—Campbells Soups and the Victor Talking Machine—later known as the Victrola.
With the founding and development of the Victor Talking Machine Company, Warren Webster was closely acquainted, as a friend of the founders and one of the first Victor stockholders.
Said my father: “The beginning of the Victor Talking Machine was shortly after we moved to Camden. Johnson was a machinist and had a little shop down the street from our factory. The first time I met him was on an extremely cold day. He came to the factory with his overcoat-collar turned up and a little box about the size of my hand in his pocket. ‘There is music in that,’ he said, ‘stop down at my place and I will put it on and show you how it plays.’
“We did a little work for him on a special machine which we had. Later I went down to his shop for a demonstration. I got to know Johnson, Haddon and Middleton and the rest of the old Victor men quite well. The machine was very meritorious and it came along fast. When Caruso made records for it all the great artists fell over themselves to sing and play for it, so that it literally carried the world by storm. I bought some of the stock and was chairman at some of the early Victor Company meetings. Of course, things are changed over there now—the old fellows have all passed out of the picture.
“Speaking of Victor shares reminds me of a very amusing experience. One day I met F. G. Middleton, Secretary of the Victor Company, and he said to me, ‘Do you want to buy some more stock?’ and I said to him, ‘Yes, I would like to have some, but I don’t want to pay too much for it.’
“He said, ‘There is a man up in Reading who has some and wants to sell.’ I asked, ‘How much does he want?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but I believe it can be bought reasonably.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you’ve a little time, take a run up to Reading with me and let us see what we can do.’
“Accordingly, we went to Reading and called on our man, who kept a clothing store. He said: ‘I need some capital to expand my business and I am willing to sell my stock, but I want par for it.’
“Middleton said to him, ‘Why, you got two shares for nothing for every share of preferred you bought at par. Why not be satisfied with half-par? Mr. Webster will buy at half-par.’
“No, he wouldn’t. We went at it hammer-and-tongs. There was nothing I liked better than a good bout of bartering when I had time—but in the end I had to give up. I couldn’t get him down a dollar and I couldn’t get away from him. I bought his stock—and paid par.
“Middleton and I had a good laugh at our own expense, but in the end I had the better of it. My man must have been sorry he sold that stock. I kept it for years and it was a very profitable investment.
“By 1895, my Organization had reached a degree of efficiency which made it unnecessary for me to supervise every detail and I could save my energies for more general promotion of the business.
“About this time I had the Company incorporated under the laws of the State of New Jersey, with my brothers A. Spencer and Theodore L. as joint incorporators.
“Soon after this I became a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers.
“In missionary work, I generally made it a point to first call on the owner of an industrial plant and ask permission to investigate his heating needs, after which I was generally introduced to the chief engineer.
“I described myself as an ‘Exhaust Steam Specialist.’ This did not arouse any antagonism on the part of the prospect’s engineers, and, in fact, generally won their co-operation. But effective as I proved this description to be, I never encountered a single competitor who used the title ‘Exhaust Steam Specialist.’
“In 1894,” said Warren Webster, “we installed a heating system in the Lowenberg Building, Norfolk, Va. They claimed it was unsatisfactory, but I afterwards found out that no exhaust steam was made available for its operation as had been contemplated in the original plans.
“One day I was in my office, at Camden, when D. Lowenberg, the owner of the building, was shown in.
” ‘I have come,’ he said in slow, measured tones, ‘to have the pleasure of telling you, face-to-face, just what I think of your equipment. It won’t work, it never has worked, and I have had it disconnected.’
“I could see he was very angry and that any attempt at explanation would do no good, so I said:
“I’m very sorry to hear you express that opinion, Mr. Lowenberg.
How much has it cost you to remove our apparatus and make new connections?”
“He said: ‘The added expense amounts to $269.00.’
“I called the bookkeeper and instructed him to make out a check for the amount. When it was ready, I placed the check before Mr. Lowenberg and said:
“This is the way we do business. I want you to be satisfied and feel that you have been treated fairly. We placed our equipment in your building on trial and you have found it unsatisfactory. I am positive the reason it does not work lies in some condition of which I am not aware, but I am not going to argue about that. I do not want it to cost you one penny. Now, this is settled, I want you to be my guest for lunch and afterwards I will take you to the station.
“When he left us in the afternoon he was in a far different frame of mind as regards Warren Webster & Company than when he arrived.
“It so happened that a few weeks afterward we wanted the opportunity of figuring on a heating system for the Monticello Hotel in Norfolk. Our representative was told to see Mr. Lowenberg. He gave the salesman a very nice reception and recommended Webster equipment for the hotel. Later he was directly instrumental in our receiving orders for five other buildings, including the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va.
“Once,” said Warren Webster, “I was the most popular man in Cleveland, Ohio—that is, for a couple of days. It was really too funny.
“I got in town late at night and went straight to my hotel and to bed. Next morning, before I was up, four or five people had called to see me. The names on their cards told me nothing; they were absolute strangers. I was puzzled.
“After I had dressed and breakfasted, I found one fellow still waiting for me. He forthwith offered to show me Cleveland. I told him I had already seen most of Cleveland, that it was a very beautiful and interesting city, but I had certain business to transact.
“He replied that was what he understood, all the same he had something new in machinery to show me which I ought to see.
I said, ‘All right, providing it does not take too long.’
“So we started out. The tour included several machinery display rooms. When we finally came back, he asked: ‘Now, Mr. Webster, may I ask if you have made up your mind as to any of the machinery you want?’
“I said: ‘I’m always interested in looking at new machinery, but I’m not in the market for anything particular at this time.’
“He seemed a little surprised at this, and so was I when he smiled indulgently and said, ‘I half expected you would say that.’
“By this time we had been joined by my other morning callers who had returned. One invited me to lunch; another to dinner and the theater—and so on. I just couldn’t get rid of them. I never was so showered with invitations and attentions in my life.
“I couldn’t make head-nor-tail of it until at last I managed to call on one of the people I had come to see and he showed me a clipping from a local paper stating I was coming to Cleveland to make large purchases of machinery for a plant I was building in New Jersey.
“I found out who was behind the joke—a man named Adams, who was agent for the Porcupine Boiler. He told them: ‘Look out for Webster. He is a modest fellow and will say he isn’t buying anything, but all the same he is going to place a sheaf of big orders.’
“Adams put those fellows on to me. He was a great joker—the son of a minister, too!”