The David Ross - Purdue Connection

The history of Rostone Corporation, now a facility of ORC Plastics, in Lafayette, Indiana is filled with the associations between its founder, David E. Ross and Purdue University.  During his lifetime, Ross was to be instrumental in the development of the Purdue Research Foundation and the concept of educational research supported by industries.  Before his death on June 28, 1943, Ross was to start four diverse industries within Lafayette and develop a strong affiliation between Purdue and these companies, but none was closer than the liaison between Rostone and Purdue.

 David E. Ross graduated from Purdue University in 1893 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.  After his graduation, Ross returned to his father's farm near Brookston, Indiana to assist in running that business.  Ross was always tinkering with mechanical devices and looking for better methods of reaching the desired results.  In his senior year at Purdue, Ross was deeply influenced by the ideas and concepts of one of his Electrical Engineering professors, R. A. Fessenden, who had stressed that anything could be done as long as men were willing to explore the unknown. 1

 By 1905, Ross had spent many hours attempting to design better working parts for the new American craze—the automobile.  He applied for patents on differential gear mechanisms, speed changing or gear shifting devices, a rear axle differential with a reversing mechanism, and finally, a new style of steering gear.  He had received legal advice through a Purdue friend, Samuel Fonts, who lived in Cleveland, Ohio, on how to apply for and sell patents.  Ross was convinced that his new steering gear assembly would revolutionize the automotive Industry, but he and Fouls had difficulty selling the idea to automotive manufacturers.

Two of David's uncles, Will and Linn Ross, persuaded him to start his own company to manufacture the new steering gears. In October, 1906, David Ross started his first enterprise, Ross Gear and Tooling Company.  (Now TRW Automotive location)  The company started making rear axles, universal joints, differential gears and steering gears, but it wasn't long before the steering gear became the primary product.  Within six years, Ross Gear and Tooling Company had to build a much bigger facility in order to handle the ever-increasing business. 

            Financial trouble began to plague the company when the United States entered World War 1.  Although deeply in debt, Ross refused to accept an offer from Henry Ford that would have made Ross Gear the sole supplier of steering gears for all Ford cars and trucks for a specified period of years for fear that the company may have to lay off workers if the contract with Ford couldn't be renewed.   By 1919, the company was financially sound due to the efforts of Linn Ross in securing loans from some Chicago bankers.

Ross had always made it known that he would financially support any worthwhile venture envisaged by any of his workers.  Early In 1919, a foreman approached Ross with the idea of starting a new company devoted to the manufacturing of differential gears, since Ross Gear and Tooling Company was now producing only steering gears.  The foreman, George Kummings, felt he should be allowed to run the new enterprise and Ross agreed.  The new business was started In August, 1919 and was named Fairfield Manufacturing Company.  (Still operating as Fairfield Mfg. today)

            During the 1920's, Fairfield's business grew steadily under Kumming's leadership, but the onset of the Great Depression spelled his downfall.  "Just after the Crash of 1929, George had taken all of the company's capital and purchased gear castings from recently liquidated manufacturers.  Before he realized it, his financial commitment to the procurement of gear castings had left the company without the capital to pay its workers or its debts. Ross was forced to re-organize the company and placed his cousin, Edward Ross, and himself as Executive Vice-Presidents.  He astonished his associates by appointing A. J. McAllister, a recent Purdue graduate, as the General Manager. Ross's reason for placing the young man in such a high position was "his mind won't be all set.  He'll still be open to new ideas, to seeing new ways of doing things". 4

In 1932, Edward Ross suffered an acute appendicitis while sailing to Europe.  "Ed Ross wouldn't allow the ship doctors to operate and by the time they reached Southampton, Ed had died. 5   The loss of Edward Ross forced David to make a decision.  McAllister had proven himself as a General Manager, but it was something else to be the man totally responsible for running the company.  Ross appointed McAllister as General Manager and Treasurer and the young man fulfilled all of Ross's expectations by making Fairfield a tremendous Industrial and financial success

         In January, 1914, David Ross started his career in public service when he was elected to the Lafayette City Council, a post he held for eight years.  During his second four-year term, 1920, Ross was asked by Purdue University to serve on an alumni committee that was attempting to raise enough money to build the Purdue Memorial Union.  Ross and the committee soon learned that the Purdue Alumni would be happy to donate money if Purdue had a good football team.  Using the recognition of the University through athletics as a key, Ross persuaded the alumni to donate over half a million dollars to build the Memorial Union.  Ross was later to use the athletic program as a stimulus for alumni participation when he convinced George Ade to assist him in building a new football stadium for the University.  The new facility was dedicated on November 22, 1924 and named Ross-Ade Stadium.  Ross was known to have said later, "They had to name it Ross-Ade because Ade-Ross wouldn't sound right since I don't need any aid. 6

        The Governor of Indiana to the Board of Trustees appointed Ross in 1921, on the recommendation of the Purdue Alumni Association.  From his first day as a Trustee, Ross had been formulating his own ideas on what the aims of the University should be in the field of education.  Although Ross had never been an outstanding student, he firmly believed that many students could be creative and inventive if they were given the opportunity.  He became so involved in the notion of Educational Research that he retired from Ross Gear and Tooling Company in 1927 to devote more time to the project.  He approached his good friend. Dean A. A. Potter, head of the Purdue Engineering school and told him, "Please let our students know that if anyone here ever has an Idea' worth patenting, I'll gladly bear all the expense of getting the patent and give whatever help or advice I can".  Ross was convinced that more scientific investigation should be used as a method of teaching and that there should be greater effort to uncover superior students and give them a chance to develop their individual talents.  In an effort to provide a work place for these gifted students, Ross moved his private offices to his building at 3084 Main Street in Lafayette.  He cleared out the top two floors for work areas and informed another of his friends, Professor Harry C. Peffer, head of the School of Chemical Engineering, to "look for gifted students, send them to me and I'll put them to work.  The Ross Building was soon to become one of the most active Research Centers in the Midwest.

        Professor Peffer sent Ross a young chemical engineering graduate student, Richard L. Harrison, who was to be instrumental in the founding of Ross's third industrial enterprise, Rostone.  Ross convinced Harrison to follow up certain phenomena that he and Peffer had noticed in nature, which might lead to the synthesizing of stone from very common earthen materials.  When Harrison discovered a definite, if somewhat unstable reaction, at relatively low temperatures, between the alumino-silicic acid found in slate or shale, and hydrate of lime, Ross saw his opportunity to show the Board of Trustees the value of Industrial Research to education.  He convinced Peffer and Harrison that the three of them should start a new research company devoted to the development of a colored synthetic stone for building material.

        Rostone Incorporated was founded on July II, 1927 at 3084 Main Street, Lafayette, Indiana.  The Articles of Incorporation named David E. Ross, President; Harry C. Peffer, Vice-President; and, Richard L. Harrison, Secretary and Treasurer and stated: The object and purpose of the corporation shall be to carry on a general manufacturing business and to manufacture building material from mineral substances.  The buying and mining of mineral substances to be used in the manufacturing of said materials and to acquire by purchase, lease, grant, or otherwise real estate that is necessary to carry on the business of said company, and to sell, lease or otherwise dispose of real estate that can no longer be used in said business.  Also, to acquire by purchase or otherwise letters patent covering any of said articles to be manufactured and to buy and sell merchandise to be manufactured, and for the sale of such merchandise when manufactured; and to do any and all acts that are necessary to carry on said business.

The new company purchased one hundred and twenty acres of land near Riverside, Indiana for nine thousand, eight hundred sixty-three dollars and deposited another twenty-five thousand dollars for buildings and materials.12   The capital stock of the corporation was one hundred thousand dollars and was divided into one thousand shares of one hundred dollars each.  The new corporation hired two recent Purdue graduates, Paul W. Jones, a Chemical Engineer, and Floyd P. Wymer, a Mechanical Engineer, to work with Harrison at the new pilot plant near Riverside, on July 20, 1927.

The site of the pilot plant had been chosen because of the large outcropping of shale.  Harrison, Jones and Wymer spent many days traveling between the site and Lafayette before they moved into a garage that was to become their home for several years.

July 23, 1927 (Saturday) was the biggest

of all days.  After a strenuous night of

packing, we loaded the truck up with trunks,

bags, tables, chairs, bushel baskets, etc.

We hustled about town to every grocery store,

hardware and other merchants of household

necessities.  We met at this office and

picked up Bill (Simcolse) and started out

to the farm.  Bill and Paul (Jones) were in

the Ford and Dick (Harrison) and Static

(Wymer) were in the truck.  The ground was

broken for the factory today, and we all

rejoiced over that. 15

        The start of Rostone Incorporated had been quite small, but Ross had hopes that the company would be able to synthesize a stone that could be used to build homes, a stone that would be colorful, durable and inexpensive.  He also hoped that the founding of the company would stimulate the Board of Trustees into accepting his concept of a Purdue Research Foundation. 

        By October, 1927, the new company was getting settled into its new facility and the experimentation on the stone was underway.  "We started experimenting with the shale to get a stone that had color and would stand up under the weather.  We used an autoclave extensively in our testing to force moisture out of the compound, but our biggest problem was the mixture and the pressure."  Ross had not expected quick results in the development of the stone, but he had hoped for more of a commitment by Purdue on his research idea than was stated in the Trustee's report of the same month, stressing "the vital importance of Purdue University of carrying on research and experimental work, its advantages to outstanding students, to the faculty, to the industrial interests of the State, and to the Commonwealth of Indiana, 77  Ross could gain only one strong ally on the Board, Josiah K. Lilly, head of the pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, and it took the two men until May 1, 1928 before the Board authorized a new department, the Department of Research Relations with Industry.  By the end of 1930, the new department was incorporated into the Purdue Research Foundation, which had provisions for the Foundation to make a profit, and not allow the University to take funds from this Foundation to offset any lack of State appropriations. 18

        Now that the Purdue Research Foundation was a reality, Ross began to devote much more of his time to the development of the synthetic stone for Rostone.  The three experimenters at Riverside, Harrison, Jones and Wymer, had been testing many mixtures of shale and lime with fibrous fillers to give the stone strength. 

In order to continue the operation, the directors of Rostone Incorporated, Ross, Harrison and Peffer, increased the common stock value to two hundred thousand dollars on September 24, 1929. 20  This increase allowed Rostone to expand its experimentation on a synthetic stone to shale, limestone, flue dust and slate. 21

On April 5, 1932, Rostone Incorporated was issued a patent for "structural material and process of making same", which had been applied for on February 18, 1929.  The patent read, in part:                                   

            Our invention relates to a new material, processing chemical and physical properties that specially adapt it for use in decorative and ornamental arts and also for structural and other purposes, and includes the material and process for producing the same.  The invention is based upon our discovery that, contrary to common belief, reaction will readily take place under proper conditions to be hereinafter set forth, between an alkaline earth base and the aluminosilicic acids comprising the so-called "clay matter" of clay materials, (slates, shales and certain clays) resulting in a new material, or new materials having new and useful properties. 22 

        Rostone now began the process of Informing the general public of the work, which had been underway for the past five years.  It was felt that the best way to demonstrate the usefulness of the new building material was to construct a housing unit using the synthetic stone.  Rostone made an agreement with the Indiana Bridge Company whereby they furnished the steel structure to specifications indicated by Rostone engineers, and Rostone supplied the fabricated stone.  A house was built in West Lafayette on Lot No.15 in the Hills and Dales addition, 23 and a home to be built as an exhibit to the "Century of Progress" in Chicago In 1934.  It was felt that the demand for those homes could be created, advertising accomplished, and good will created more rapidly and at less cost than would be possible through the usual channels.  In view of Rostone's understanding at the time that the Indiana Bridge Company would go forward with plans to license the manufacture of the stone, fabrication of the steel, and erection of the houses.  Before either house was complete, the Indiana Bridge Company withdrew from the Agreement and Rostone was forced to complete both projects on its own.

Floyd Wymer and Paul Jones gave a presentation to the American Chemical Society at its 1933 meeting in Washington, D.C. on producing a synthetic stone consisting of quarry waste and a shale binder.  Their report was reprinted in the July 1933 issue of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, while Harrison and Jones published a follow-up article in the same journal in 1935. 24  It was felt that this type of exposure would greatly enhance the selling power of the new building material.

        The directors of Rostone made many contacts in an effort to find licenses for the construction of homes using Rostone during 1934.  The success of the "Century of Progress" house had attracted many architects, builders and those in the contract field as well as the general public.  Sears, Roebuck and Company made arrangements for distribution and sales of Rostone building materials and a Rostone designed steel frame that was manufactured for Sears by Martin-Perry Corporation of York, Pennsylvania.  Sears built a model house at "A Century of Progress", using Rostone material and made an arrangement whereby they would maintain the Rostone house but allow Rostone to have a representative present in the interests of Rostone products, which Sears hoped to sell.  Two Mechanical Engineering graduates from Purdue, Maurice Knoy and David W. Slipher were hired to be the backers and represent Rostone.  The failure of Rostone to attract licenses and the downfall of the Samuel Insull's utilities empire in Chicago had a great impact on the future of the company.  Insull's chain of holding companies in his public utilities empire, at its height worth at more than three billion dollars, had collapsed in 1932, causing the Federal Government to investigate any company that had associated with Insull.     

        Rostone had been working on a project to make building bricks out of flue dust or fly ash since 1931, and at one point during that year had almost completed terms whereby Rostone and Insull would have created a holding company to manufacture the bricks.  The deal with Insull had never materialized, but Rostone felt any attempt to get new licenses for their building material could create problems, especially in light of the Insull trials, which lead to the eventual passing, by Congress, of the Wheeler-Rayburn Public Utility Holding Company Bill of 1935, 26

In an effort to improve the quality and size of the stone slabs, Rostone purchased the former building of the J. Horat Machinery Company on Earl Avenue in Lafayette and moved their manufacturing facility from Riverside to Lafayette.  The company purchased a new hydraulic press that was much bigger than anything they had tried before, along with a larger steam autoclave.

To avoid any legal problems with licensee holding companies, David Ross convinced Harrison and a local contractor, Karl Kettlehut, to form a new company, R-H-K Corporation, Ross's fourth business venture.  R-H-K was founded on April 21, 1934 with its offices at 3083 Main Street in Lafayette, Indiana, for the sole purpose of manufacturing and selling Rostone building materials.  This move allowed Rostone Incorporated to return to its primary function, the research of building materials.  "When the Federal Government slapped on the Holding Act, R-H-K was formed.  It was our only way out.  We hired a couple of architects and salesman and went out to sell Rostone”. 28

The success of the new corporation was to prove very frustrating.  Karl Kettelhut resigned from the company on June 1,1935.  "Karl left because we just couldn't give him enough business. He could do much better as a private contractor”. 29   While R-H-K Corporation had taken over the new manufacturing facilities on Earl Avenue and had almost all the former Rostone production employees working for them, they still relied heavily on the engineers from Rostone Incorporated to assist them In selling homes and building materials.

R-H-K made many attempts to expand their markets but were thwarted by the inability to convince architects, contractors and homebuyers of the value of Rostone.  The company did build several homes and commercial buildings around Lafayette and Chicago, including the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority House at 325 Waldron Street in West Lafayette, but by 1937, R-H-K Corporation was forty-two thousand dollars in debt with little prospect of recovery. 30  R-H-K just didn't have the people capable of totally designing and building houses.  The failure of Rostone Circle, a group of houses built in 1936 off Highway 43 just south of Lafayette to stimulate sales, and Ross's insistence on building ten demonstration homes instead of one, created a serious financial problem.  "Dave Ross had the opinion that a circle was the way to go. The theory was that they all face into the center.  The Idea was to build them and sell them.  You don't do that.  You build one and sell it to a woman who then tells every other woman about her great house.  You let her sell your next houses.  Dave wasn't interested in that. "31

Rostone Incorporated was still devoted to research and the idea of creating building materials out of waste products such as fly ash, limestone, shale and other substances.  But another Purdue connection led the company into a totally new market, the electrical insulators.

A convention of Chemical Engineers at Purdue University in 1935 introduced Paul Jones of Rostone Incorporated to another Purdue Chemical Engineering graduate named Powers from a young growing electrical control company, Allen-Bradley of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Powers was Impressed with Rostone's research facilities and later called Jones concerning a problem he was having.  As Jones later put it,.

            The beginning of the machine tool business started when they put separate motor control units on individual machines.  Before that, there was no concept of separate motor control units; only belt or clutch drives off a central shaft that ran all the machines.   No one knew how to run a machine with a separate control and the material in the control unit would begin to immediately carbonize, thus shorting out the motor control.  I got a call from Powers who told me Allen-Bradley wanted a new non-carbonizing non-organic material and he didn't know where to start. 32 

Jones convinced Powers that the research facilities at Rostone would be capable of helping him solve the problem if Allen-Bradley would provide a die (a mold Into which material is forced and shaped into the form) and let Rostone mold parts for electrical tests.  The research led to the introduction of a reinforced version of Rostone‘s original shale-lime building material that not only had extremely high resistance to carbonizing, but also had non-tracking capabilities. 33  The new material was called an 'inorganic' plastic, which at very high pressure could be molded into intricate shapes and proved very suitable as an electrical insulator.  The material was given the trade name ROSITE In 1937.

The failure of R-H-K Corporation to show a marked improvement in sales forced the directors of both R-H-K and Rostone Incorporated to consider the possibility of a merger.  Rostone now had a potentially marketable product in Rosite, which could be sold throughout the United States, while R-H-K couldn't expand its market beyond a three hundred mile radius of Lafayette due to the shipping costs of the heavy Rostone slabs.  With profits from Rostone Incorporated still low and R-H-K Corporation in debt, it seemed advisable to shareholders of both companies to merge.   Only five people had stock in R-H-K Corporation at the time of the merger:  David Ross with six hundred and eleven shares, Richard Harrison with one share, Louis Alt, Floyd Wymer and Vincent Bliss with five shares each. 34   With Ross holding the majority stock in both companies, the decision on October 9,1937 to merge was academic.

On October 12, 1937, R-H-K Corporation merged with Rostone Incorporated to form Rostone Corporation, which was to have an operating budget of Just over twenty- four thousand dollars.  The new corporation named David Ross as the Chairman of the Board, Richard Harrison as President and Treasurer, Paul Jones and Floyd Wymer as Executive Vice-Presidents and Maurice Knoy as Secretary.  All stockholders of R-H-K Corporation and Rostone Incorporated were asked to surrender their stock certificates in exchange for "one share of said proposed preferred stock and two shares of said proposed no par value common stock of Rostone Corporation for each twenty-three shares of present par value stock of said merging corporations held by such stockholders of Rostone Incorporated stock and for each five shares of present par value stock' of R-H-K Corporation, 35  The new company had six thousand shares of stock consisting of three thousand shares having a par value of one hundred dollars each and three thousand shares having no par value denominated common stock. 

The merger of the two companies into Rostone Corporation allowed the company to continue selling building materials, conduct research, and market the new cold mold product Rosite to the growing motor control Industry. 36  On February 14, 1938, Rostone signed a contract to supply Allen-Bradley internal parts for their new overriding electrical relay system that was to revolutionize the industry. 37  "Fred Loock, the President of Allen-Bradley, decided he wanted a center ground relay system, no matter what the cost, so they started to build these products and they became the Cadillac of the Industry. " 38

By February of 1940, Rostone had increased the number of companies it was serving and had made progress in the techniques of molding Rosite.  This development in molding technique, together with some progress in the development of the uses of Rosite in fields other than those where high arc resistance was required increased the outlets of the material.  The sales of building material was not increasing as hoped and the improvement of the financial conditions of the company over the next six years was due solely to the sales of Rosite electrical insulators.   

In 1938, the company lost $36,761.88; in 1939 the loss was $13,706.54; in 1940 the loss amounted to $2,446.48.  In 1941, the company showed its first profit, $6,607.72; in 1942, the profit was$18,053.66 and, in 1943, the company profits were $14,752.85. 39 

The newfound success of the company could be explained in several ways.  First was the method of sales,

        In the building business, a salesman sells a home, but in the motor control business the customers came to us.  We (Rostone) had a method of selling, particularly between Maury (Knoy) and I.  We got the customer designs and modified them so they could be molded.  We convinced the customer of our engineering capabilities and once they accepted, we would design the tool and have our die shop build it.

        Second was David Boss's firm belief that his research project would have proven successful.  Throughout the history of the company, Ross supplied the needed capital to keep the company from folding.  Even though Ross was never able to attend another stockholder or Board meeting after February 12, 1940, he still attempted to maintain an active role in the conduct of Rostone until he was stricken with hemiplegia on July 16, 1942.  He remained bedridden without the power of speech until his death on June 28, 1943.  Ross had been quoted as once saying, "I don't know how long it will take to convince the public, but this Rostone experiment will finally prove to be the most important thing I have done. “ 11  He never was to realize how important, as the company grew to multi-million dollar concern by the mid 1950's.  The third reason for the company's success was the new material, Rosite, and the impact it had on the motor control and electrical distribution industries.

David Ross had few heirs to his fortune, having never married and only one sister who survived him.  In his will, Ross gave all of his preferred stock of Rostone Corporation to his beloved creation, the Purdue Research Foundation, along with a Rostone note for forty-two thousand dollars.  Ross had 'stipulated that the Directors of Rostone should be the only ones allowed to purchase the stock from the Foundation, and that the greater share of the forty-two thousand dollar note was to be held in cash for working capital. 42

        Over the next several years, Rostone purchased all the stock held by the Purdue Research Foundation as well as paying off the obligator note.  With the final payment on the note being made on September 21, 1955, all ties between Purdue and Rostone came to an end, with David Ross's dreams successful realities.

 

FOOTNOTES 

1 Fred C. Kelly, David Ross, Modern Pioneer:  A Biography.

(New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1946) 1 pg. 32.—(Hereafter sited

as Kelly, David Ross...)

 

2 Ibid., pg. 56.

 

3 Interview with Paul W. Jones, Rostone Corporation,

Lafayette, Indiana, 15 March 1979.  (Hereafter sited as

Interview with Paul Jones.)

4 Kelly, David Ross... pg. 57.

5 Interview with Paul Jones.

Interview with Paul Jones.

7 Kelly, David Ross... pg. 57.

8 Interview with Paul Jones.

9 Maurice G. Knoy, "Rostone Corporation in History."

(Company Article, 1974), Pg. 1.

10 Rostone Corporation, Minutes of Meetings of the Board

of Directors and Stockholders, 1927-47.  Meeting of II July, 1927,

pg. 14 (Typewritten).  (Hereafter sited as Rostone Corporation Minutes. )

 

11 Ibid., pg. 2

12 ibid., pg. 3.

13 ibid., pg. 2.

 

14 Paul W. Jones and Floyd P. Wymer, "The Diary of Two Truck Drivers of  Rostone Incorporated," 1927-28, Rostone Corporation, entry of 20 June, 1927.  (Hereafter sited as Jones and Wymer Diary.)

16 Interview with Paul Jones.

17 Kelly, David Ross..., pg. 109.     

18 Ibid., pg. 112.

19 Jones and Wymer Diary, entry of 8 March, 1928.

20 Rostone Corporation Minutes, Meeting of 24 September,

1929.  Pgs. 29 – 35.

21 Ibid., meeting.- 13 July, 1931, Pgs. 48 - 52.

22 United States Patent Number 1,852,672, issued 5 April,

1932.

23  in 1934, the house was sold to Dr. William K. Halt.

24  Richard L. Harrison and Paul W. Jones, "A New

Synthetic Stone," Industrial and Engineering Chemistry 25

(July, 1933):  719, and "Rostone Operations," Industrial

and Engineering Chemistry 27 (September, 1935):  1023.

25 Rostone Corporation Minutes, meeting of 13 July, 1931,

               Pg. 54.

24  For an in depth study of Samuel Insull, see Forrest

                    McDonald, Insull (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1962.)

27 Rostone Corporation Minutes, meeting of 13 July, 1937,

                         pg. 114.

28  Interview with Paul Jones.

29 Interview with Paul Jones.

30 R-H-K Corporation, Minutes of Meetings of the Board

                      of Directors and Stockholders, 1934-37, meeting of 7 June, 1937

                      (Typewritten.)  (Hereafter sited as R-H-K Corporation Minutes.)

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