Fairbanks Morse Scales

Fairbanks Morse Scales

“While sitting up watching for the time to call him, the principle upon which we now build our scales suddenly came into my mind. I told the agent that he must wait a few days until I could make plans and patterns in accordance with my new discovery, and said to my wife that I had just discovered a principle that would be worth more than a thousand dollars.”

Thaddeus Fairbanks was born in Brimfield, Massachusetts on 17 January in 1796. At age 19 he opened a wheelwright shop above his father’s mill in St. Johnsbury VT. Five years later he built an iron foundry. There, in partnership with his brother Erastus, he manufactured stoves and farm implements.

Around 1830, the Fairbanks brothers became interested in the production of hemp. Since no scale was available that could accurately weigh large loads of hemp, Thaddeus proceeded to design one. He arranged a system of levers that significantly reduced the weight needed to counter-balance a load. He dug a pit for the levers, placing the platform level with the ground. This eliminated the need to hoist the entire load. In 1830, he applied for a patent.

Prior to this time, objects had always been weighed by hanging them from a balance beam. This made it difficult to weigh very large or very heavy items. Fairbanks’ solution of a platform balance allowed a wagon could be driven onto the platform and weighed together with its cargo.

When family members suggested that he market the scales to others, Thaddeus secured the services of an agent. Then, while awaiting their appointment, he had a further brainstorm, which he later recalled in the passage quoted above.

The “E. and T. Fairbanks Company” was formed in 1834 and began selling platform scales, not only in the United States but also in Europe, South America, and even China. Their products ranged from the small counter-top scales seen in hardware stores, to the familiar floor model that we step on at the doctor’s office, to a very large version capable of weighing a vehicle. If you have ever bought a load of gravel, coal or animal feed in your pickup truck, you have probably driven your vehicle onto a scale that was originally designed by Thaddeus Fairbanks.

On June 13 1857, Thaddeus Fairbanks received United States patent #16,381, the first U.S. patent for a railway track scale. Railroads earn money for hauling freight, and they charge by the ton. Therefore, every load gets weighed before it is transported. The scale he designed weighed railway cars either alone or in train. The platform was fitted with rails so that cars could be rolled on and off. The mechanism beneath was set in a pit. It was constructed with suitable levers and bearings to permit weighing a great range of loads accurately. Look at the dimensional data printed on virtually any freight car, and you will see a figure labeled “LT WT” indicating how much the car weighs when empty. Railroads weigh every loaded car in a freight train, then subtract the LT WT, to determine the amount of tonnage they haul and to calculate their charge for transporting it.

By 1860, Fairbanks’ scales were the best-known American product in the world. The company had grown to over 1,000 employees; it was exporting scales to China, India, Russia, South America and the Caribbean; and European sales were so strong that the firm had established an assembly facility in Budapest.

The rapidly-growing family business was incorporated as “Fairbanks Scale Company” in 1874. Not only did Fairbanks become one of the leading USA manufacturers of the nineteenth century, but it remained the best-known brand name in the world until Ford overtook it in the 1920s.

Thaddeus Fairbanks was awarded 43 patents during his lifetime. The last one was issued shortly before he died at the age of 91.

Charles Hosmer Morse was Fairbanks’ agent in the Chicago area. Morse eventually became a partner in the business. By late nineteenth century, the corporate name had been changed to Fairbanks, Morse and Company. As the firm continued to grow, its product lines diversified to include typewriters, windmills, pumps, and internal-combustion engines. FM’s diesel engines were manufactured in Beloi, Wisconsin. The first ones were small power plants used for irrigation or oil well drilling. Larger examples were used aboard U.S. Navy submarines in World War II. Descendants of those engines are still used in naval vessels today.

In 1944, Fairbanks-Morse began building a diesel-electric switching locomotive called the H-10-44. The first example, which was purchased by Milwaukee Road, is now in the collection at Illinois Railway Museum. “H” stood for “hood”; “10″ denoted 1000 horsepower; the “4s” denoted four axles and four traction motors, respectively. A distinctive feature is its cab roof which overhangs the rear platform much as cab roofs do on steam locomotives. Fairbanks-Morse built several other styles of diesel locomotives, both “covered wagon” and “hood” models.
Fairbanks-Morse exited the railroad business in 1963. Assets of the original company have changed hands several times through acquisitions and mergers, but Fairbanks Scales still manufactures precision weighing devices just as its founder did 180 years ago.

Reference note by p4A Contributing Editor Joseph H. Lechner, Ph.D..

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