Click the image to learn more. A Cutler-Hammer employee tests electrical controls in 1963.

Originating in Chicago in 1892, Cutler-Hammer quickly relocated to Milwaukee and became one of the city’s leading business enterprises. Capitalizing on the broad use of electricity in the late nineteenth century, the company gained world renown for its electrical controls, devices that were used in everything from lamps to military aircrafts, submarines, and battleships. Like many Milwaukee corporations, Cutler-Hammer failed to maintain local ownership but has continued to have a presence within the city’s industrial community to the present day.

The firm came to Milwaukee in 1899, following a conflict over a patented starter box for motors.[1] The legal battle—with Milwaukee’s American Rheostat Company—ended in a partnership.[2] An economic depression made the 1890s particularly difficult for the young company, which nearly folded. As it bounced back late in the decade, Frank R. Bacon, its president, capitalized on his Milwaukee connections, situating the new business at the corner of St. Paul Avenue and 12th Street.[3]

To avoid future hardships, Bacon and the company’s namesake, Harry H. Cutler, made every effort to diversify production. Throughout the early 1900s, the company developed an automatic motor starter, elevator controls, a high-powered magnet designed for heavy lifting, and dimmers to eighty percent of New York and Chicago theaters.[4] They also bought a company that had patented an enameled resistor (essential for electric heating equipment) which opened a host of manufacturing opportunities.[5] The buildup of the American Navy following the Spanish-American War brought the company major contracts providing turning gears for turrets and electric rudder controls.[6]

As was the case for other industries, the subsequent outbreaks of two world wars proved a further boon to Cutler-Hammer. In addition to providing controls for naval vessels, the company developed rifle grenades for World War I.[7] Furthermore, it paired with four other Milwaukee companies to form the Wisconsin Gun Company, which manufactured 3-inch guns for that war effort.[8] When World War II broke out, the company shifted all its production to military goods, producing control devices for every branch of the military.[9] In peacetime, it sought to tap into the commercial uses of electronics in the burgeoning airline travel and space industries.[10] Cutler-Hammer also capitalized on the Marshall Plan, through which it gained footholds in Europe for exporting various electronics technology.[11] These successes led the original plant to expand steadily until 1963 when Milwaukee County needed a sizable portion of this property for a new freeway interchange.[12] By that time, additional plants had been opened at other Milwaukee locations.[13] Over time, the company grew to include fifty-four plants around the world.[14]

Ultimately, the company’s vast success on both a national and international stage led to the loss of its independence. The Eaton Corporation bought Cutler-Hammer in 1979. This takeover was far from hostile, however, and Cutler-Hammer retained its name and considerable control over its operations. It still retains the 30th St. facility as well as a handful of other Eaton manufacturing plants in the surrounding area.[15] Furthermore, Cutler-Hammer has an international presence. The company secured contracts abroad as early as 1906, and in the 1960s and 1970s it opened additional branches across the world.[16]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Cutler-Hammer, Inc., An American Dream: A Commemorative History of Cutler-Hammer, Inc., 1892-1978 (Milwaukee: Cutler-Hammer, Inc., 1979), 5-10. It was formed by MIT grad Harry H. Cutler, Franklin S. Terry, Charles Wirt, and Edward West Hammer in Chicago in 1892. Originally known as the Chicago Electric and Manufacturing Company, it was renamed Cutler-Hammer Manufacturing in 1892 following Wirt’s departure.
  2. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 8-10. Francis R. Bacon, a Princeton graduate and Milwaukee resident, established American Rheostat Company with Lucius T. Gibbs in 1896. Following their meeting in court in 1897, and Hammer’s decision to leave the company, Bacon offered to buy Cutler-Hammer, resolving the patent conflict. They kept the more recognizable Cutler-Hammer name and continued to operate out of Chicago until 1899.
  3. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 10. The company retained this location until 1975, when it donated the land to Marquette University.
  4. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 11-16.
  5. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 12-13. In 1903, Cutler-Hammer bought the Carpenter Enclosed Resistance Company, whose namesake, Charles E. Carpenter, had designed the award-winning enameled resistor. This device was important for its use in a whole host of heating equipment, but Cutler-Hammer most notably used such resistors in its controls for machinery in the print industry. The design was especially desirable in a field that employed flammable raw materials as paper and ink in great quantities.
  6. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 14.
  7. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 22-23. At the peak of production, the company was churning out nearly 18,000 per day.
  8. ^ Lewis C. French, “Cutler-Hammer, 50 Years Old, Grew with and Harnessed Electric Power,” Milwaukee Journal, December 6, 1942, p. 6. According to French, Cutler-Hammer joined with Bucyrus-Erie, Kearny-Trecker, Northwestern Malleable Co., and the Washington Pump Company. They also had over 400 employees who enlisted in the service and were then put to work at Cutler-Hammer as a unit devoted to naval production. See also Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 23.
  9. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 36.
  10. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 43. Since Cutler-Hammer had shifted all of its production to war materiel during World War II, it had to reorganize in the postwar period. It did so by developing consumer goods (mechanical controls, heating implements for hot water heaters and electric stoves, thermostats for refrigerators, freezers, and automotive air conditioning systems) and filling government contracts (naval control units, electronics for the burgeoning space program, and as a major contractor for the Air Force’s reconnaissance program). Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 48-50.
  11. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 39. In particular, Cutler-Hammer exported Calorimeters and “gas mixing systems” to help Europeans tap into its gas resources after the war.
  12. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 52.
  13. ^ “Cutler-Hammer to Keep Centralized Operation,” Milwaukee Sentinel, September 7, 1952, 7. According to the article, the company had plants at 315 N. 12th St., 226 E. Juneau Ave., and 4107 W. Orchard Street (the former Wisconsin Gun Company plant), and was then establishing its headquarters at the new 30th Street plant, which spanned over 256,000 square feet. (Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 41)
  14. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 54.
  15. ^ Gordon L. Randolph, “Cutler-Hammer Was Caught but Chairman Has Praise for Eaton,” Milwaukee Journal, December 17, 1978, p. 4.
  16. ^ Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 58-59. These included Cutler-Hammer International in Europe, Cutler-Hammer-Igranic, Ltd. in South Africa, Cutler-Hammer India, and Cutler-Hammer Centroamericana (headquartered in Costa Rica). Its early international contracts included manufacturing controls for the electric streetcars in Havana (Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 15) as well as designing control equipment for the Panama Canal (Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 17), and distributing electric controls in the United Kingdom through their subsidiary, Igranic Electric Co. in the 1910s (Cutler-Hammer, An American Dream, 19).

For Further Reading

Cutler-Hammer, Inc., An American Dream: A Commemorative History of Cutler-Hammer, Inc., 1892-1978. Milwaukee: Cutler-Hammer, Inc., 1979.


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