McKenna Process Company
Plant formerly located in Joliet, Illinois - ca. 1920.

England 1904-1905
George Langford, Sr.
[Annotated March 2, 2007, by George, III on the basis of an article on the English McKenna Company, Ltd.
in the British magazine, Engineering, published in 1906, and graciously conveyed to me by John A. Dichfield]

In 1904 I became general superintendent of the American McKenna Process Company through the resignation of David H. Lentz.  I had charge of three rail "renewing" or rerolling mills; at Joliet, Illinois; Kansas City, Kansas; and Warner's Station (Tremley Point) New Jersey.  The last named plant was in the salt marshes on the Staten Island Sound shore, 7 or so miles from Elizabethport.

In spite of the fact that the three mills were not indulging in promising business, Mr. Edwin H. Abbott, Boston moneyed man of the McKenna Company, had organized an English McKenna Company, and he, together with Howard Morris of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Harry L. Burrage of Boston, Massachusetts, had put a lot of money into it.  These three men controlled.  Three Englishmen,
[William] Tozer [Managing Director], [S.Thornley] Mott [Chairman of the Board] and [George F.] West [Director & Secretary] were the three managing directors.  [F.A. Knight was the English McKenna Company's engineer - George, III.] The English McKenna Company was to "renew" worn railroad rails as was being done in the USA, and also to reroll heavy rails into smaller ones for commercial use.  The three American trustees and three English directors anticipated great things from this English company.  Work was well under way on a plant at Birkenhead, England, in 1904.  This was across the Mersey River from Liverpool.

It was the original intention of the American trustees to send Mr. D.H. Lentz over as consulting engineer to help build the plant and show the Englishmen how to "renew" worn railroad rails.  It was he who designed the buildings and machinery, and with his long rolling-mill experience, he was considered a good man for the job.  But his resignation ended that, and then I was asked to take his place.  I then had an assistant, Nathaniel L. Hurd of Joliet, with several years of McKenna mill experience, and it was thought that he could run things in the USA plants while I was in England.

All this sounded good to the American and English managers but not to me.  I had helped Mr. Lentz in the designing of the English plant and looked upon it as a mass of experimental hodge-podge and fanciful ideas.  It was all cumbersome, expensive and impractical.  I did not think it would work.  Besides that, Hurd would find the three American plants a big job, more than plenty for the two of us.  So I went to see Mr. Howard Morris about it.  He thought me pretty fresh and said so.  I was only a cub, and it was not for me to criticize the judgment of older, experienced men.  They knew what they were doing, and it was for me to do as I was told.  So I was sent to England in October, 1904.  My wife and two very small children were with me.  We sailed on the Baltic.

Our children's trunk missed the boat.  That was tough getting along until we landed.  Mrs. Harry Loud was on the boat, sailing to join her husband in Liverpool.  He was a manager of the Westinghouse plant there and an old friend of the Lockwoods in Riverside, Connecticut. "Aunt Kate" Buxton, my mother's school chum, was Mrs. L.A. Lockwood's sister.  So we expected to see more of the Harry Louds in Liverpool.  My wife's sister, Mignon Holmes, sailed on the Baltic with us.  Lee DeForest was on the boat also.  He was the inventor of the radio tube.  I knew him at Yale.  He was in the Sheffield Scientific School class above me - 1896 Sheffield.  He soon showed marked attention to Mignon but she was not very responsive.  He seemed to have the knack of antagonizing most people that he met.

Our first home in Birkenhead was at a boarding house owned by Mrs. Birket.  Late in the Fall we rented a house with garden.  We found this a very comfortable home and inexpensive.  Common labor was then being paid 5 pence, less than 10¢ per hour.

The English McKenna managers sent me out on various business trips, on which my wife and her sister elected to accompany me on every occasion.  Birkenhead had a very good rugby football team, and we went many times to see how the original game was played; lots of running, no rough stuff, no tackling, and very few injuries.

The Russian-Japanese war was going on.   We were then at Mrs. Birket's, and the naval officers were boarding there also.  One evening a message came, and they were off in a hurry.  The Russian fleet entering the English Channel had shot up a bunch of fishing boats, thinking that they might somehow be Japanese boats.  That made all England pretty mad.

I went to Glasgow next day on business.  Although this was a manufacturing town, my wife and her sister insisted upon going too.  From Glasgow we went to Edinburgh.  We stayed nearly four days in Edinburgh, looking over all the places of historic interest.  I put in an afternoon at the archaeological museum.  We went to Stirling and went out to see the Field of Bannockburn where King Robert the Bruce defeated the English.  We stopped overnight in Stirling so that I might get out the next morning to see the Firth of Forth Bridge.

I was up early, probably too much so.  When I came in sight of the Firth far below, I was amazed to see it covered with a lot of battleships moving about.  Then a squad of soldiers swooped down upon me, and I was taken before an officer to explain my presence.  I finally did so and was sent back to my hotel.  The attack on English fishing boats by Russian warships had aroused great indignation.  The British fleet was ready for battle.  But diplomatic discussions were going on, and the matter was eventually smoothed over. 

I did not get to Perthshire in the Highlands, home of my Grandfather D.A. Robertson's ancestors.  These were the chiefs of the Robertson Clan of Struan, which I knew almost nothing about at that time.  I now regret that I did not make this visit.  We made another trip to the Isle of Man; this was by boat.  We spent two days there, at Peel, Castleton, and Douglas.  We went to Llandudno, a beautiful spot by the sea in Wales.  From there I went to Dowlais to see the steel works.  A bit later I went far up the west coast of England to Workington and visited the Cammell Laird Steel Works.  There I met the manager, Mr. Carlisle, with whom I was to have business experience later on.

The three of us got to reading Walter Scott's books and playing Shakespeare quotation games.  We met people and did some entertaining.  We often barged over to the Liverpool Hippodrome, a thing that English ladies did not do.  But we did it anyhow.  We went to the Windermere Lake District, travelling part way by coach,  We stayed over at Keswick.  Somewhere around there we penetrated a rocky region and met an individual named Postlethwaite.  He collected Paleozoic fossils and clung to us when he found that I was interested in the subject.

By this time we were better acquainted with English people and their customs.  We knew better than to go to the "pork butcher" to buy fish.  We got those at the "fishmongers."  The "green grocer" had fresh vegetables, and we got other stuff from the "dry grocer."  English houses lacked heating furnaces, but each of our rooms had a small coal-burning grate in it and we kept them all going during the not very severe Winter.  Coal was cheap; about 75¢ a ton; and very good soft coal at that.  Our two children had a capable nurse and were generally having lots of fun. 

My wife's sister left us and visited the Continent.  In the early Spring, my wife went there too for a couple of weeks.  We went to Henley and saw some of the rowing.  This was in 1905.  I had taken part in the races there in 1896. The Boer War had taken off some of the English oarsmen that I had known.  I went over the course again in a rowboat.  We were very happy in England.  We made other sight-seeing trips.  They were tiring, but we could go home and rest until the urge for another jaunt came upon us.

I do not mention here some of the trips that I made alone; a few on business, others on fossil-hunting expeditions to Wigan, Castleton, Sheffield, Peterborough, Ipswich, Cromer, Whitby and other places.  We returned to America in the Summer of 1905.

The business side of our life in England was nothing but grief.  My position was that of a looker-on mainly, as I was given no real authority.  My American employers had made it clear that I was not sent to England to criticize or usurp authority; but they would be glad to hear from me from time to time.  But before long I was sending out warnings, and by that time they could begin to understand for themselves that the whole venture was threatened with disaster.

Putting any new manufacturing plant into production is not easy.  The weak spots show up and must be remedied. The plot is to get things right as soon as possible so that the plant can get going on a paying basis.  In designing its plant on experimental and unperfected lines, the McKenna Company expected some difficulties.  They might have foreseen that better judgment might have greatly reduced the risk, but Mr. Lentz's word was Law on all engineering matters and he followed his own ideas blindly.  He had a head draughtsman, Diefendorf, and the two of them worked it all out.  I was called in a great deal when any cessation of mill operations gave me the spare time.  As my approval and not criticism was in order, I soon found myself very much on the outside and did little more than make tracings of plans already agreed upon.  I was much disturbed by the whole thing and had several talks with Mr. Howard Morris about it.  He invariably chided me gently.  I was still young, and fundamental policies would be decided by more mature minds.  That failed to dispel my apprehensions, but it did convey the warning that it might be well for me to keep my mouth shut for my own good.

In the period of preparation in England, I had few responsibilities.  There were two capable engineers in charge of all mechanical operations, Knight and Bolton.  I ran errands.  My advice was often asked by the engineers and managers, and they made the decisions.  From time to time, I reported progress to Mr. Morris in the USA.  As previously instructed, I confined my reports to engineering matters ... for a time.

In the Winter of 1904-05, the plant passed from preparation into the operating stage.  Then the troubles began to show up, and they were plenty bad.  Week after week; month after month passed through a series of serious and unending difficulties.  These were the results of untried and experimental fundamentals.  It was an electrically operated plant with three steam-driven turbines attached to electric generators.  Steam turbines were new, and the Willans Company was in the stage of improving them.  A few had been tried on vessels.  Turbines were destined to replace steam engines, but there was still a long way to go to make them dependable.  The McKenna engineers soon found that out.  Time and time again, everything stopped for days, sometimes weeks, while Willans engineers rewound generators, replaced myriads of turbine blades, and worked to remedy obvious defects.  It cost Willans a pretty penny, but they met this cheerfully in the knowledge that it was valuable pioneering work that would eventually pay good dividends.
[See J.V.G. WILLIAMS, J. V. G., The Enterprises of Willans and Robinson (1880-1919) - George, III.]

However, all this was tough on McKenna; money continued pouring out; and none was coming in.  And the McKenna engineers had other great big worries, for the roll trains with their electric motor drives were having no end of grief. 

There were six stands of rolls arranged in tandem, making one long line of six, two-high rolls with long spaces between each stand of rolls.  The hot rail, starting at one end, was kept moving in a straight line through the six shaping passes, one after the other, after which it was presumably finished to the required shape.  Each of the six roll stands was motor driven.

The roll stands were spaced progressively from 35 feet at the first stand to 72 feet at the last in order to accommodate the increase in length of rails that were being reduced in all six passes from 45 pounds per yard to a considerably lighter commercial rail.  The six stands were stretched out in a line 423 feet long - George, III, paraphrasing the Engineering article.

But the motors were small with high speed.  Big slow speed motors had not yet come into use for driving rolling mills.  The roll speed was geared down by a small motor pinion and a big roll gear.  There were no flywheels for storing energy, and the small motors were not strong enough.  The rails stalled in the rolls.  The motors and roll gearing were on separate foundations with nothing to tie them together.  They began to pull apart, one after the other.
The photograph of one roll stand's drive system in the Engineering article of 1906 still shows separate foundations for the motor and gearset - George, III.

Those all-electric drives were a big mistake.  The 12-1/2 foot driven gear turned at no more than 75 revolutions per minute (rpm) so it stored virtually no kinetic energy.  The 500 horsepower electric motors turned at only 300 rpm and so they stored little, if any, kinetic energy either.  On the other hand, the large steam engine driving each pair of rolls at the Joliet works of the McKenna Process Company supplied the power to keep a huge direct-connected flywheel up to a similar 75 rpm speed.  The "power" of the Joliet plant's steam-driven arrangement actually came from the conversion of the kinetic energy of the flywheel into mechanical energy to deform the steel rail.  The flywheel was large enough to supply all the energy to complete the rolling of each rail passing through the mill without slowing down excessively, and there was sufficient time between rails for the steam engine to get its much larger flywheel back up to its rated speed, regulated by the steam engine's governor.  The motors of the English McKenna plant's mills therefore had to supply all the energy to roll each rail without drawing more than the rated amperage of their windings.  If the torque to operate the rolling mill exceeded 2-3/4 times the rated running torque of the motor, then the rail would stall the mill - George, III, comparing the data in that Engineering article to what is known about the Joliet plant's operation. 

When I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1967-1969 I could often hear the steam engine driving the 48 inch universal rolling mill converting ingots into blooms at US Steel's Carrie Furnaces, across the Monongahela River at the Homestead Works.  It was the last steam-operated mill in the US.  The sound was a heavy BOOM, followed by smaller
BOOMs at an ever-increasing frequency but decreasing intensity - the frequency corresponded approximately to the two-beat-per-revolution of a double-acting steam engine operating at about 120 rpm - George, III.

Here was grief, plenty of it.  I forget how long it took to repair motors; design and build six new huge iron base plates to tie motor and roll gearing together; to design and build six motor flywheels; to repair six roll drive foundations; and what not.  It took a mint of money to do all this, and meanwhile the money was pouring out fast in numerous other quarters; a flood of money going out and none coming in.

Then, there were the furnaces, two of them near the first of the six roll stands.  These were heating furnaces over 50 feet long to accommodate the new standard of 45 foot rail.  In practice it had been the custom to break long lengths into shorter lengths and use shorter furnaces.  But long furnaces to accommodate long rails had been Mr. Lentz's decision, and there it was.

When turbines, roll trains, and all were finally rehabilitated, the furnaces had their turn.  The long 45 foot lengths were too much of a drag upon the rolls and the electrical driving power.  Circuit breakers flew out, and the rails stalled.  This occurred incessantly, and finally rails had to be broken into short lengths, resulting in more grief because of having to handle short lengths in long furnaces.  There were two other shorter furnaces for 33 foot rails, and they might have proved a godsend at that point.  But they were too far away, placed to serve the fifth and sixth roll stands as per two-pass rail "renewing" practice.

There were many other similar troubles but I mention only the disastrous ones that were rapidly hurrying the McKenna Company to its downfall.  Those in authority were concerned, but it amazed me how blithely they went along.  The money was going fast, but the trustees in the USA kept the English managers supplied with fresh funds, and so things went merrily on.  However, my reports to the USA, becoming more and more outspoken, were not eliciting rebukes.  The men who had to get the money were becoming hard pressed.

The British rails evidently had a different profile than American rails, because the English McKenna Company dispensed with the Joliet mill's rail-cooling practice of letting the rails cool at first while tipped over to the right and then flipping them over to the opposite side when they had reached the recalescence point, easily discerned visually by the one man assigned that job.  The English McKenna mill had to camber the rails while they were hot so that they would come out approximately straight, as the head cooled differently from the flange, distorting the rail.  Cambering was done on automatic machines, but then many of the cold rails then had to be straightened on one of the four presses needed for the task, each one of them requiring only a single operator, but overall causing more operators and four straightening presses to be needed, while Joliet's practice only needed two operators on one press - George, III, again gleaning data from the Engineering article.

Even then, the McKenna Company might have eventually pulled out of its difficulties.  I so wrote to my American employers.  Under certain conditions, a tie-up with the big Cammell-Laird Steel Company might be made.   They appeared receptive.  I explained why.  I had talked with the English managers about it.  I looked like the best way to do.

I had been to see the Cammell-Laird rail mill at Workington, where the manager Carlisle had called me into his office for a chat.  This was before the mill at Birkenhead had passed into the operating stage.  Once in Carlisle's office, we had drinks,  We talked; and the more Carlisle drank, the more I could see what was in his mind.

The talk centered on heavy rails; what did I know about rolling heavy rails ?  "Not much," I admitted.  My experience was with  the "renewing" of heavy worn rails not new ones.  That was why I had been sent to England.  Could the McKenna Cmpany manufacture heavy rails ?  He asked me this, having not yet visited the McKenna plant.  I replied that the plant was not designed for such a purpose.  How about moderately heavy rails, for instance 75 to 85 pounds per yard ?  "Hardly practical," was my answer.  How about rolling heavy rails into moderately heavy rails ?  I was beginning to see the plot by this time.  I told Carlisle that the McKenna Company had never contemplated this.  "But it might be contemplated," Carlisle insisted.  Did I think it could be ?  I replied that the best thing that I could think of was to make some arrangement with the Cammell- Laird Company to be supplied by them with heavy rail "seconds" for rolling into light commercial rails, 25 to 60 pounds per yard.  The mill was best suited for that.

This seemd to touch Carlisle in the right spot.  He had been drinking incessantly and began to talk more freely.  I knew that a tentative deal was on whereby the Cammell-Laird Company would soon be sending 105 pound "seconds," 45 feet long, to the McKenna Company to be rolled down to small commercial rails.  "Seconds have long been a problem," Carlisle said.  "Nobody wants them; and now with the increasing weight per yard and the long 45 foot length, their disposal is becoming a serious problem.  It may be that your mill in Birkenhead is the answer."

I met Carlisle again later in Liverpool at a Lord Mayor's dinner to which many manufacturers were invited.  Two of the managers of the English McKenna Company were there, too.  A man suddenly gave me a hearty greeting as we stood around, awaiting the call to table.  It was Carlisle.  "I have just been chatting with Mott and Tozer," he announced.  "Now let's get down in a corner by ourselves and have a visit."  "Suits me," I replied.  "Things were looking pretty dull until you came in," I continued."

He seemed to like that.  So we found a place for ourselves and he began drinking as soon as he could get a waiter to serve him.  He seemed to know a good deal more about the McKenna plant.  "You will have troubles getting going, but things will get better if you don't take too long at it."  Mott and Tozer had evidently told him that the mill was running after a fashion, and he asked me about the weights of rail we were making and contemplating.  I gave the weights; orders for 25 and 45 pounds per yard, and bids on several batches of 20 to 50 pounds.  Evidently, Mott and Tozer had given him the same information, for he appeared satisfied; then he growled a bit; "your friends have some big ideas; but I guess they will get over them."  The rest of his talk, when it veered to business, had mostly to do with finding markets for lightweight commercial rails.  "It takes a lot of them to make tonnage," he said.  "And it is not easy to sell enough of them to keep things going."
[The Engineering article of 1906 says that the English McKenna plant's daily capacity was 200 tons - that works out to the potential of processing 50,000 tons per year vs. the American McKenna Process Companies' combined output of 80,000 tons as of 1900, having started in 1897 - George, III.]

It was more than apparent that Carlisle was friendly disposed toward me,  He wanted to meet my wife and children, and I invited him to my house.  He was, as I remember, about 20 years older than I, smooth faced, thickset and powerfully built.  But I never saw him again after that meeting in Liverpool.

A few days later, Tozer told me of his short visit with Carlisle.  He had been discussing the matter with Mott, and both men agreed that they could manage McKenna business without Carlisle's help.  The latter had been briefly discussing the marketing problems with them and had suggested that it might be better if the Cammell-Laird Company had some control of this.  The McKenna Company was beginning to experience operating troubles, but the English managers had not beome alarmed on that score as yet.  They were decidedly cocky over Carlisle's suggestion.  I then made it known that I thought the suggestion a pretty good one.  Tozer thought differently.  The Cammell-Laird Company would  want a selling commission, a shilling, maybe even two shillings per ton, and the McKenna Company would not consider that.

Men's minds sometimes choose to travel along devious channels.  I cannot yet understand why those English managers turned from the obviously straight path opened before them.  "You must either work with the Cammell-Laird Company or you must oppose it," was the most I could say, and that made no impression.  I wrote the same to our American managers but got no response.

Time went on.  Mill operations were experiencing the troubles previously enumerated, and the English managers were seeking business and doing the best they could to get orders filled.

More time went on; from Spring to early Summer, 1905.  Then one day Mr. Tozer showed me two letters; one signed by himself, bidding on a lot of 85 pound rail; the other an acceptance.  I will never forget the sensations that almost overwhelmed me, after I read those letters.  It was too late to talk.  Tozer could see that I thought it was bad news.  "It will work out all right," he assured me, but already he was beginning to have some doubts.  He had decidedly more of them when he learned a few days later that the order he had taken on 85 pound rail had been alotted by the Rail Pool to the Cammell-Laird Company.  Queer, how it happened that way.  I could see Carlisle rising up in his wrath and hatred of McKenna and all its works at this double-cross, as it would appear to him.  His answer was not slow in coming.  The next consignment of rails from the Cammell-Laird Company came in 15 foot lengths, the minimum length agreed upon.  Each 45 foot length had been broken into three, 15 foot lengths.  Notice of another consignment showed the same thing.  Mott and Tozer asked me what I thought about it.  There was only one thing to do: cancel the order as soon as possible and get back into Carlisle's good graces if that were possible.   So they cancelled the bid, but evidently the Cammell-Laird Company was through.  No more rail came to McKenna from them.