Clifford W. Zink, “Mercer Magic,” published by the Roebling Museum. . Hardcover, full color book with 208 pages and 335 illustrations.

In 1900, as historian and preservationist Clifford Zink writes in “Mercer Magic,” his most recent book, “Trenton was a center of capital, entrepreneurship, innovation, and manufacturing, and it was ripe to play a role in the new automobile industry. . . .Trenton factories produced vast quantities of steel, pottery, rubber, and other products, and the Chamber of Commerce aptly chose the city’s motto in 1911: Trenton Makes, The World Takes.

The author of five previous books including “The Roebling Legacy,” a history of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Zink grew up in northern New Jersey, where his father was a fireman, and his mother was a department store manager. His father took him on many trips to the significant structures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Zink later realized that many of them, including the Brooklyn Bridge, had a connection to John A. Roebling.

Zink graduated from Temple University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and documentary filmmaking and then earned a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia. He later moved to Princeton. The excerpt below is from the introduction to “Mercer Magic”:

The dawn of the automobile age a century ago was incredibly exciting, with innovators and entrepreneurs starting hundreds of automobile companies in many places here and in Europe. Automobiles fascinated nearly everyone and promised unprecedented freedom of movement, and style and speed added rich icing to the cake. This is the story of a brief but glorious run of one automobile company that has left a legacy of highly prized cars in private collections and automobile museums.

The fastest and most stylish automobiles naturally attracted the attention of wealthy young men like William K. Vanderbilt II, Washington A. Roebling II, David Bruce-Brown, Spencer Wishart, Caleb Bragg and other millionaires who raced their own cars or raced for manufacturers.

Washington Roebling II’s appetite for automobiles encouraged his father, Charles Roebling, and his uncle, Ferdinand Roebling, who were leading manufacturers of wire rope and sons of the German immigrant bridge builder John A. Roebling of Brooklyn Bridge fame, to get into automobile manufacturing. Their friends and business associates, Anthony and John Kuser, twin sons of Rudolph Kuser, a Swiss immigrant purveyor of specialty boilers, saw automobile manufacturing as an exciting opportunity for expanding their portfolio of business, which included trolley, gas and electric companies.

The Kusers and Roeblings entered the industry with William Walter, a Swiss immigrant chocolate machinery manufacturer who was so fascinated with automobiles that he started building his own in his New York factory. They set up Walter in a new automobile factory in Trenton, and when Walter’s high-priced automobiles failed to sell, they created the Mercer Automobile Company, “financially the strongest in the country . . . to build a car in a class by itself,” with a reasonable price and minimal maintenance.

Trenton was fertile ground for startups. It contrast to the well-capitalized Mercer Automobile Co., William Sharp started building his Sharp-Arrow cars on a shoestring budget in a shed behind his Trenton photography studio.

Like Renault in France, Mercedes in Germany, Fiat in Italy, and Simplex Marmon and Buick in America, the Kusers and Roeblings and Sharp turned to racing as the best way to test, refine, and market their cars. “Racing improved the breed,” many said, as it brought weaknesses to the fore in a day that might remain hidden during many months of street use. Durability and speed boosted a car’s image better than anything else.

Most of the early successful racecars were heavy, with big engines of 400 to 600 cubic inches of displacement. From the Roebling legacy of bridge building, Charles Roebling knew that lightness and strength were the optimal combination, and Mercer built light cars that were durable and nimble. Finley Robertson Porter’s 300-cubic inch T-head motor and compact, low chassis achieved the partners’ ambition to “get into the light car racing game.” Mercer built Raceabouts “to meet the growing demand for a high-speed, high-grade, moderately priced racing car, which a private individual can take out on the road, and safely and consistently drive at a speed between 70 and 80 miles per hour,” which was quite fast in those days.

With solid financial backing, business and manufacturing expertise, and notable cars, the Mercer Automobile Co. had a fine run for ten years. Racing success brought Mercer national prominence in its early years, but changing times and the Great War refocused the Company’s efforts on building notable medium weight cars without the racing cache. With the death of the Roebling brothers and the coming of Prohibition, which shut the Kusers’ brewing business, Wall Street investors took over Mercer in 1919 with big ambitions but poor timing at the start of a postwar recession. John Kuser rescued the factory in 1921 and kept building fine Mercers but couldn’t keep up with the competition, and he shut the factory for good in 1924.

Marcia and Harvey Steinberg, “A Small City’s Culture, a Worldly Future: How IBM Began.” E-mail

The Roebling family’s influence in central New Jersey in the last half of the 19th century also played a role in the publication of the monograph, “How IBM Began.” The authors, Marcia and Harvey Steinberg of Lawrenceville, are a professional couple with impressive credentials. She has a Ph.D. in sociology from the City University of New York, and had a career in college teaching. He earned a law degree at Brooklyn Law School and has been an executive in labor relations and in community and urban economic development.

Their interest in the history of technology was sparked by a visit to the Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey, where they saw one of the original employee time clocks used in the old Roebling Steel Mill. “It caught our eye,” write the Steinbergs in the preface to their 83-page monograph. “What could be the history of this object, designed to monitor worker punctuality in the emerging age of industrialization in the late 1800s, with modern equivalents still in use today around the world?”

Their research soon led them to Binghamton, New York, a town roughly the size of Trenton located at the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers about eight miles north of the Pennsylvania border. There emerged a company that — through various iterations — eventually grew into International Business Machines, IBM, as the world knows it today. As the Steinbergs write:

The brand new Arlington Hotel just southwest from the train depot was sumptuous and large, “an ornament to the city, with every modern convenience and comfort.” Upon its opening on April 24, 1888, the structure’s gracious public spaces and 100 overnight rooms “furnished in a luxurious manner” boosted to a yet higher pitch the optimism sweeping the city.

As in other cities touted for their industry, Binghamton was caught up in the euphoria of economic progress, and inventiveness was prized. . . . Binghamton, all in all, [was] a city with prime conditions for ambitious manufacturing firms, encompassing a hotel auspiciously appropriate for the meeting in 1889 of four men — Willard LeGrand Bundy, a jeweler and wizard at clockmaking; his younger brother Harlow Elisha Bundy, a lawyer and executive; Harlow’s brother-in-law, A. Ward Ford of Deposit, N.Y.; and Ford’s father William, a general merchant “for a period of fifty years [the recipient of] marked success.”

Discussions were to be had about forming, financing, and putting into operation the Bundy Manufacturing Company to take advantage of Willard’s patent No. 393,205 issued 20 November 1888, an innovative mechanical product — the “Time Recorder” — not yet commercially proven.

Ironically, Willard LeGrand Bundy’s employee time-recording device, designed to establish and print the start and the stop time of workmen, would not be used to count the unruly hours and endless efforts that he and his brother Harlow would invest over the next several years. Harlow later described those years as “arduous, painful, and nerve-wracking. You can’t comprehend how difficult it was to place the first hundred machines. Everybody who was approached would say, ‘Why, we have always got along well enough without it and we don’t know why we can’t continue.’”

Nevertheless, there was a business to run and brothers with backgrounds to make the attempt.

. . . So from 1889 to 1891 the Bundy Manufacturing Company labored hard, Harlow using his worldly smarts to preserve the company as best he could, while Willard combined, reconfigured, and repurposed previous inventions to achieve a new workable instrument for a novel social use; a deceptively simple feat that took tenacity and ongoing expenditures to crystallize. The exclusive right to its patent was guarded thereafter through vigilance, enabling quick advance of the Bundy Manufacturing Company.

After [seventeen years at several Binghamton locations], the company continued its growth by relocating to the near-by town of Endicott.

The operating entity that began in 1889 in the embrace of Binghamton was to become the core of a series of acquisitions, consolidations, and name changes over the next 25 years . . .

Thomas Watson joined the evolving organization in 1914, and ten years later he renamed the company “International Business Machines.” At Watson’s side from 1914 and until 1948 stood friend, business advisor, and then IBM board member, A. Ward Ford, the young man who had been named Secretary of a minuscule corporation in 1889 after he and his father appeared at the Arlington Hotel to hear about a promising, but questionable, new machine.

Facebook Comments