BY MARCI LAEHR TENUTA
RACINE - While he was known best for the popular little motorized tool he invented and built a company with, Albert J. Dremel was much more than a manufacturing inventor.
While he held about 60 patents, Dremel was also an artist, an innovator in employee benefits and a philanthropist. His ideas forever changed Racine and the world.
Dremel was born in Austria in 1887. He came to the United States in 1906 at the age of 18 with his father and settled in Milwaukee, where they had family. Their initial plans were to make some money and then return to Austria.
Dremel first worked in Milwaukee as a file maker, lathe hand and toolmaker. He earned extra cash on the weekends by playing the violin in German beer halls.
Unhappy with his professional outlook, Dremel began taking courses at the International Correspondence School in English, mechanical drawing and engineering.
At the age of 25, he got a job with J.I. Case Co. as an agricultural equipment designer. That year his wife died, leaving him with three small children. His mother took care of the children while he continued to work as a designer. He later married Helen Wuertz, with whom he had two more children.
After three years at Case, Dremel left and became a math and mechanical drawing teacher at Racine's vocational school. He later moved to Newton, Iowa, where he took a job as the chief designer for Maytag Co.
Dremel designed the first automatic safety wringer for the company. It is rumored that Mr. Maytag told Dremel, "On this invention I will make my first million and I will pay you a nice bonus." The bonus never came, and in 1919 Dremel quit his job with Maytag and moved back to Racine.
It was while sitting in a park one day that Dremel first dreamed up the idea for a self-propelled lawn mower while watching a park employee mow the turf. Drawings in hand, he went to K. F. Jacobsen, the owner of Thor Machine Works, which later became Jacobsen Manufacturing Co. Within three months two samples of the mowers were finished.
The new machine was called the 4-Acre because it could mow that much grass in one day.
By 1921, Dremel was a superintendent at Jacobsen Manufacturing, and his design was the basis of the power lawn mower industry.
From 1925 to 1931 Dremel worked as an engineer at the Allover Manufacturing Co. He invented a successful line of clippers, vibrators and massage machines.
While he was by this time regarded as a superb engineer, Dremel wanted to start manufacturing something for himself. In 1931, Dremel "retired" from working for other people and began working on his own inventions.
According to a newspaper article in 1968, Dremel often objected to being called an inventor.
"Inventors are complete innovators," he would say. "They create things that didn't exist before. I'm just an engineer. All I do is borrow an idea here, a part there, and build something."
For all his successes, Dremel actually kept a room full of his failed inventions at the Dremel Manufacturing plant on 21st Street.
"When I get a little bit too proud, I look in this room," he said.
Among some of his failed inventions were an egg counter that was strapped to a hen's back, a minnow trap for fishermen and an electric razor-blade sharpener.
The blade sharpener actually gave birth to Dremel Manufacturing Co. in 1932. However, the invention itself did not survive a slashing of razor blade prices during the Depression.
"I'd still be making sharpeners today," Dremel recalled in a newspaper story in 1948, "except that one morning I picked up the paper and read that Gillette had cut the price of blades in half. When I saw that story, I locked the factory and went home to design a new product."
He then came up with the invention for which he will always be known: the Dremel Moto-Tool. The high-speed rotary tool was compact, lightweight and incredibly versatile.
Dremel began actively marketing the Moto-Tool in 1935. It was an instant success.
The Moto-Tool put power at your fingertips and helped tackle a variety of tasks. It was used as a hand grinder, a high-speed drill, a router, carving tool, an engraver, small drum sander, saw and polishing head. It was used by fishermen to sharpen fish hooks and knives, by dentists to do bridgework, by locksmiths, and by gun makers to carve custom stocks.
According to a 1966 article by Popular Science, the Moto-Tool also was used by the Army, Navy and defense industries during World War II, and even played a part in the laboratory work that went into making the first atomic bomb.
The little tool spawned a whole family of small power-driven tools including a bigger Moto-Tool in 1936, the Moto-Saw in 1940, the Moto-Sander and the Moto-Shop, a tabletop jigsaw, in 1948. Electric shoe polishers also were added to the lines.
Dremel's manufacturing company first rented out space at 14th and Clark streets, and in 1946 the company opened its own plant at 2420 18th Street.
A larger facility was erected in 1967, one year before Dremel's death, at 4915 21st St.
At that location, Dremel's other passion, oil painting, was on display. An accomplished artist, his original work adorned the walls of the plant.
Dremel's plant was not just the site of his manufacturing inventions; it also demonstrated his innovations in employee benefits. The plant incorporated a variety of features aimed at employee comfort including maple flooring laid over concrete to prevent fatigue, an employee lounge and a cafeteria.
He once said: "A factory isn't just a building where people come to work. It's the place they spend one-third of their lives. The boss owes it to his employees to make them as comfortable as he can."
Dremel's reputation for liberal employee benefits was built on the substantial profit-sharing plan he founded along with the company. In lean years, Dremel was known to dip into his own pockets to meet bonuses. He also paid employees on an hourly basis, instead of the piece-work wage system of the time.
"I have always felt that when employees have a sense of sharing in the welfare of a business they will do their best to help the business prosper," Dremel said while making bonus payments in 1954.
"I think the record of Dremel employees over the years is proof that this system works best."
Dremel died in July 1968 after a long battle with cancer. But right up to his death, he and his wife furthered his legacy of innovation.
After making many trips to Milwaukee for chemotherapy, Dremel began conferring with local hospital officials to see if a similar facility was needed here. He then donated $50,000 toward a cancer treatment facility here.