by Tim Hoogland
History is made up of the connections of people to the past. The job of a historian is to tell the stories about those connections. In order to piece together the stories of the past, the historian depends on the records left behind by people and organizations. These records usually take the form of letters, documents, books, diaries or recordings. However, the "things" people leave behind can also be very important to the study of history, especially if you have background information to help you "read" them.
Objects and Memories
Objects help connect events and memories. This is why people purchase souvenirs, or mementos, when they go on vacation. A sea shell, t-shirt or postcard may not cost very much, but each of them can be priceless when it helps trigger memories of a special time and place. History museums collect and display objects to tell stories about the past and families take special care of objects that are considered to be "family heirlooms." In both cases, the objects are preserved in order to connect new generations to the stories and activities of their ancestors. Although objects will not speak to you, if you know enough about the people who made, owned or used them you may discover surprising connections to history.
This story begins with a hat. The hat is made out of leather, has a fleece lining, and is machine stitched. Other features include a visor, ear flaps and a buckled chin strap. The materials and design of the hat can tell you a lot about the culture of the people who made or used it. In this case you could conclude that the hat belonged to someone who lived in a cold place where animals are used to make clothing. The machine stitching and the buckle show that this culture had factories as well.
Figuring out the type of hat and the date it was made requires more detective work. There are no brand names to give you clues about where or when it was made. Looking through catalogs may help in your search, but without more information it is hard to arrive at firm conclusions.
What makes this hat different from an identical one you may find in an antique store is that we know its provenance. Provenance refers to the supporting information about the owner or user of an object. The more you know about an object, the easier it is to connect it to the stories of history.
At first glance you might guess that the hat belonged to an early airplane pilot. That is a good guess, but it is actually a motorcycle helmet from the 1930s. This object is not especially rare. It did not belong to a famous daredevil or movie star. What makes this helmet valuable is that there is supporting information about the life and work of its owner. This motorcycle helmet will help tell the story of a young man seeking his career and how the future of a company was changed by the technologies invented by its employees.
An Interest in "things mechanical"
The owner of the motorcycle helmet was Herbert Kuhlemeier, who was raised in the small town of Rockford, Iowa, just outside of Mason City. Herb's thoughts on his early life were recorded in April of 1929 when he completed a senior class writing assignment that asked him to assess his life and talents up to that time. In his essay, Herb commented on both the joys and isolation of rural life. He knew he did not want to be a farmer, but like most high school students Herb did not have a clear picture of his future career. "It is my task to choose an occupation which will satisfy my ambitions," he wrote. "Perhaps my chance will be presented to me or perhaps I shall find it whatever it may be." He closed his essay with the following summary of his skills and interests:
Due to the fact that I have always liked to read and have read quite a bit, I have always had a trend toward literature. Also I have always been interested in mechanics and things mechanical. This not leaving me in the bottom in mathematics and Physics, but my weakness is to be found along the line of Civics and Government altho [sic] I have no peculiar dislike for either.
About the same time Herb was writing his essay, events were taking place that were important to shaping his future. In Minneapolis the merger between the Minneapolis Heat Regulator Company and Honeywell Heating Specialties was being completed. Each of these companies was a leader in the area of home heating control devices. The combined resources of the new Honeywell Company were critical in preventing the economic devastation suffered by other firms due to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
During this time economic hardship was a global phenomenon. It was especially severe in Germany where the failing economy increased the popularity of radical political parties, including the National Socialists led by Adolf Hitler. In 1929 the sales of his political manifesto, Mein Kampf, tripled. In the next ten years Hitler and his followers rose to political power and plotted the conquest of Europe. Their plans transformed the German economy and focused industrial production on the technology of war.
In 1929 few people could imagine that the fates of an Iowa school boy, a heating control manufacturer, and a budding dictator would be linked closely together. However, the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the European war it created led the American government to increase military preparations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected the argument made by isolationists that America could remain unaffected by the wars raging in Europe and Asia. He wanted the country to be ready if war came.
For most Americans, the events in Europe were not their main concern. The Depression still lingered on and unemployment remained high. After high school Herb Kuhlemeier followed his interest in "things mechanical" and traveled to Chicago to attend an electronics school. He returned to Iowa in 1931 to work in the radio business and eventually purchased a repair shop in Mason City. Even during the Depression the demand for radios, and their repair, was high. Herb made a steady living and on Aug. 28, 1934, he married his high school sweetheart, Esther, and they settled down to raise a family.
A Plane that Flies Itself
By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, many American companies had started to produce military supplies. With the United States now in the war, the amazing transformation of the American economy to wartime production proceeded rapidly. Refrigerator companies were making gun placements, automobile manufacturers were building tanks, and the Honeywell Company completed work on a government request to develop automatic control systems for airplanes.
The invention of the airplane autopilot is linked to one of the most secret technologies of the American war effort the Norden bombsight. The Norden bombsight, the optical device that a bombardier looked down to target bombs, was remarkable for its ability to increase the accuracy of high-altitude bombing. However, accuracy was still dependent on the pilot's skill in maintaining steady flight. The U.S. Army Air Forces turned to American industry to find ways to fly airplanes with more precise control. One of the companies they contacted was Honeywell.
Honeywell engineers had demonstrated heating control devices for military airplanes but did not receive any government contracts for their work. However, the military soon realized that the technology used to control heat could also be applied to other purposes. The first military use of Honeywell control technology was to keep airplane cameras level as they took pictures of the ground.
When pilots had trouble flying with enough precision to keep the Norden bombsight accurate, Honeywell engineers were asked to help solve the problem, drawing on their expertise in home heating technology. A household heating thermostat is a feedback control device. It senses changes in temperature and turns on the furnace if it gets too cold. Once the temperature has returned to the proper degree the thermostat turns the furnace off. These same principles were used in the development of the airplane autopilot.
The engineers developed a device that would automatically correct the movement of an airplane that flew off course. This device became known as the C-1 autopilot. The key to the system was a gyroscope that could sense variations in course and speed and make adjustments well before a human pilot. Once the autopilot was turned on, control of the airplane passed to the bombardier, who would make final flight changes as he peered through the Norden bombsight. The C-1 autopilot made it possible to achieve flight accuracy beyond human ability, and its success launched the new "Aero" division of Honeywell.
Herb Goes to Honeywell
Invention of the C-1 autopilot and development of other wartime products such as tank periscopes, artillery sights and other equipment for airplanes caused dramatic changes for Honeywell. New factories required hundreds of employees. Engineers were needed to test and improve products. To meet these demands, companies were constantly in search of men and women to work on the home front.
Herb's knowledge of electronics made him a very desirable employee for the war industries. Twice he tried to enlist in the army, and both times he was rejected because of his technical training. In the fall of 1943 he received a letter from Honeywell inviting him to come to Minneapolis for an interview. Herb had been referred to the company by an employee who had worked with him in the radio business. He accepted a position in the Aero Division and there found his opportunity to serve in the war effort. In November of 1943, Herb Kuhlemeier sold his business and moved to Minneapolis. His wife and three children joined him the next summer.
Herb became part of the team of engineers who worked on the production of the C-1 autopilot and developed a variety of aeronautical instruments. With Honeywell facilities spread out in different parts of Minneapolis, Herb would ride his motorcycle from plant to plant as he worked on his projects. Having a motorcycle was also economical because gas was rationed during the war.
Eventually Herb was assigned to the airport hangar as the chief electrical flight research engineer. Here he worked on a B-17 bomber loaned to Honeywell by the Army Air Forces. Engineers used the bomber to test new devices as it made practice "bombing" runs over a small lake in northern Minnesota. Herb's key contributions to the company were the development of a gyro balancer that improved the production of the autopilot and the invention of a six-channel flight recorder that collected data from test airplanes. He worked as part of a team of engineers who refined the technology that would make an important invention the autopilot work efficiently and be widely used.
Wartime Triumph; Personal Tragedy
By the spring of 1945 the allies were on the way to victory in both Europe and the Pacific. This achievement was due in a large part to the remarkable transformation of American industry to wartime production. Through scientific and technological innovation, American companies were able to supply the needs of a global war effort. Honeywell manufactured over 110,000 autopilots and related devices during the war. This was accomplished with such high quality standards that Honeywell was recognized with several Army-Navy "E" Awards for excellence in production.
Herb wore his "E" pin proudly. It symbolized the dedication of the men and women on the home front to winning the war and supplying the military with the tools it needed to do the job. The company newsletter for May 25, 1945, described how over 70,000 people attended an exhibit of Honeywell war products. Sadly, however, right below this article is the obituary for Herbert Kuhlemeier who died at the age of 34. The sudden onset of pancreatic cancer cut short his career and left a widow and four children.
As he wrote about his future aspirations in his high school essay, Herb had these thoughts about service and sacrifice:
I believe he is truly American who helps others. I do not mean to work for a neighbor for a week and collect full wage, but to do the little things that one can do to help others solve a problem that bothers their hearts or souls or to help one on the right track who has been side tracked. I would like to do great things but I do not care to be a great man.
Like millions of other Americans, Herb Kuhlemeier found a place to serve in the war effort and played a part in the transformation of the Honeywell company. Technologies developed during World War II provided the foundation for new postwar businesses as civilian uses were found for military products. The autopilot and other instruments developed by the Aero division were important to the rapid growth of commercial aviation. Further advances in these technologies also made Honeywell a leading supplier of control systems to the American space program.
Family History Connections
It is hard to imagine that the founders of a company whose products were designed to control home heating would think of a time when their successors would help land men on the moon. But history is made out of the ability of individuals and organizations to adapt to change. Science, technology, and invention shaped the future of engineers like Herb Kuhlemeier and companies like Honeywell. The stories of products like the C-1 autopilot demonstrate the historic results when individual inspiration and corporate resources are combined.
This story began with a hat, so it is fitting to end it that way too. Herb's leather motorcycle helmet was given to me by my grandmother when I was 14 years old. I do not know why I was selected, but she just thought I should have it. I knew it belonged to the grandfather I never met and that he died when my mother was just six years old. Fortunately, the helmet followed me safely through high school and college and was still available when I learned about the other information that helped tell this story.
The information in this article is made up of family photographs and records combined with the corporate records Honeywell donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. I did not know at the time my grandmother gave me the hat that I would become a historian and have the opportunity to study the part my grandfather played in the war effort. Herb's family and the Honeywell company cared about their history. They preserved information that will help other family members and researchers understand their place in history.
By telling this story using my own family history, I am hoping you will ask questions about the people in your family. History is about the connections among people, places and times; and the lives of ordinary individuals are directly linked to extraordinary events. The impact of science, technology and invention on the history of your family is something for you to discover.
|Now that you have read the Herb's story, enter here to learn more about his life, work and family.|
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