“Where Professionals Connect”
By William G. Ritchie
In the early 20th century, Dayton was fortunate to have giants who brought prosperity to the Miami Valley, most notably John Patterson, the Wright brothers, Charles F. Kettering, and Arthur Morgan. These were men of vision, imagination, skill, and determination. But there is another man who made their ideas work, creating effective businesses and organizations that would generate lasting benefit for Dayton and its citizens: Edward A. Deeds.
Deeds and Kettering were a very successful team that collaborated on many projects, starting in 1904 when Deeds brought Kettering to National Cash Register. It continued when they struck off on their own to develop an improved automobile ignition set and the self-starter, which led them to found Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO). The team of engineers who worked on the automotive parts in Deeds’ barn behind his house became known as “The Barn Gang.” Kettering and Deeds felt that this spirit of collaboration was so vital to their success that they founded the Engineers Club in 1914 to create a place for creative discussions and fellowship. In 1916, they donated the property and building that houses the Club today.
The Early Days
After graduating from Denison University, Deeds came to Dayton in 1898 to become a draftsman for the Thresher Company, a maker of electric motors. Although he was off to a good start at Thresher, he applied for a position of “Factory Engineer” at the growing National Cash Register Company and was hired in 1899.
Deeds made his first big impression at “The Cash” by climbing up a 90’ smokestack to prove to a doubting Frederick Patterson that it was in need of repair. To Deeds’ lasting benefit, this greatly impressed John Patterson (Frederick’s brother), the President of NCR who loved that kind of gumption.
In 1902, Deeds went to Niagara Falls to build the factory that would produce Shredded Wheat. It was a very modern production facility that became known as the “Palace of Light” and was actually featured on the cereal boxes. A year later, John Patterson asked for “that resourceful engineer” to come back and join NCR. So Deeds agreed to return to NCR as Assistant General Manager at the age of 29.
NCR & Kettering
Since Deeds “believed in electricity”, he worked on the use of a motor to drive the cash register to make it easier to operate. While Deeds was granted a patent for motorizing the cash register, he realized that he didn’t have the knowledge to perfect the design. So in 1904, he contacted The Ohio State University to find an electrical engineer and came up with Charles Kettering.
This was the beginning of a great friendship that saw them collaborate on many designs over the next dozen years. Through his background in engineering and science, Deeds was able to understand when engineering skill was required. He would provide the resources to the best man for the job, and then get out of his way so he could get the job done. This paid off handsomely for Deeds many times throughout his career.
But it was not always pleasant working at NCR in those days. John Patterson was a true eccentric who would fire entire departments and was known to sack executives if they became too valuable. At one point Patterson decided that a man could not be effective if he couldn’t manage a horse so he insisted that his managers go riding at the company stable before work in the morning. During one of these sessions, Patterson observed that Kettering simply was not able to ride and told Deeds to get rid of him. Deeds never carried out that direction, preserving numerous money-making inventions for the future of NCR.
While NCR was extending its dominance in the cash register business, Deeds sensed the enormous growth coming in the automobile industry. He said to Kettering, “There is a river of gold running past us – why don’t we throw out a little dam and sluice some of it our way?”, to which Kettering readily agreed.
Deeds had originally wanted to produce cars and actually built one for himself, his “Suburban Sixty”. But he ultimately realized that “putting something on cars” was more practical. So they targeted the biggest problem of the day: engines stalling at low speeds.
In 1908, Kettering began working nights and weekends in the barn behind Deeds’ house in Dayton to create a better ignition system to solve the stalling problem. One year later, Kettering resigned from NCR to work full time on the project. After many failures and startovers, they made the ignition system work and received an order from Henry Leland at Cadillac for 8,000 sets. This launched DELCO, the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, which Deeds managed while still at NCR.
Kettering and Deeds not only borrowed tools and equipment from NCR but also engineers and designers who would come over to the barn to help out, beginning with William Chryst and William Anderson. This group ultimately grew to 12 men and came to be known as the Barn Gang when they developed the self-starter for the 1912 Cadillac.
This experience with the Barn Gang led Deeds and Kettering to start the Engineers Club in 1914 and eventually donate the building that is still in use today. Following Deeds’ feeling that “men ought to hunt together”, they wanted to create an atmosphere like they had in the barn for sharing ideas and solving problems.
In 1915, Deeds finally resigned from NCR to run DELCO full time. By now, the company had grown to 2,000 employees and had moved into a 7-story building. Then, in 1916, just 7 years after its beginning, Deeds and Kettering agreed to sell DELCO to Billy Durant of United Motors (the forerunner to General Motors) for $9 million in cash and stock.
March of 1913 brought a flood that devastated the city of Dayton. After cleaning up and burying the dead, the citizens of Dayton set out to make sure it would never happen again. Patterson became the driving force to create a flood prevention program. After raising millions for its construction, he turned the direction of the project over to Deeds.
Seeing the need for engineering talent, Deeds hired Arthur Morgan as the Head of Engineering for the Conservancy District just two months after the flood. Morgan devised a plan of dry dams that would control the water upstream rather than creating lakes.
While the Conservancy District dry dam system ultimately became a model for flood prevention around the world, it was an untested concept. There were many challenges in developing the design and Deeds threw himself into the project, ultimately becoming recognized as an expert in flood control. He helped to evaluate the proposed designs, even to the point of converting his swimming pool into a model of the “hydraulic jump” system of baffles proposed by Morgan to dissipate the energy of water coming through the dam openings.
Arthur Morgan said that Deeds provided the resources they needed while creating an ideal environment for study, declaring that it was an “Engineer’s Utopia”. Morgan had great respect for Deeds and knew him quite well. In later years, Morgan became the president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs and Deeds offered to join the board, which Morgan politely declined. When asked why he would turn Deeds away even though he would certainly have made a needed contribution, Morgan said, “that man ends up running everything he is connected with and I don’t want him running Antioch.”
In spite of the desire to prevent floods, there was enormous resistance to the District’s plan from citizens north of Dayton who felt they were going to pay for something that would only benefit the businesses downstream while putting their lives in danger. Deeds held many meetings with those citizens, personally going “up and down the valley” to remind people how horrible the flood had been, “bringing them to tears with intense emotion”. He would try to explain the passive, or dry, dams by saying “they aren’t dams, they’re hills!”
Just as there was no design for the design and magnitude of the dam system that was proposed, there was no legal precedent for the Conservancy Act. After Deeds spent much time and money working with James Cox, the governor from Dayton, and the state legislature, the Act was passed into law. The Committee had set out to create a statute that was invulnerable to attack. After withstanding 61 appeals – all the way to the Supreme Court, it was clear that they had done just that.
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