In its time, the Jeffrey Manufacturing Co. was a force to be reckoned with in American business enterprise.

As one of the largest makers of mining machinery in the world, the company emerged in the late 19th century as a major economic influence on the success of Columbus as center of industry and government.

It all began when a man named Joseph Jeffrey took a walk along High Street during his lunch hour on a nice day in 1876. In the window of a local store, he saw a scale model of what purported to be a "mining machine." In a time when coal mining was dark, deadly and dangerous work done by a lot of men with picks and shovels, a mining machine -- if it actually worked -- might transform an industry.

Jeffrey contacted Francis Lechner, the owner and inventor of the machine, and inquired how he might help the invention along. As it turned out, Lechner needed assistance. He might have been a skilled inventor, but he had serious problems in what we today might call "marketing" and "product development."

One problem: His machines -- in an era before electric motors -- ran on compressed air and tended not to work so well -- if at all.

Jeffrey provided some help in financing, marketing and manufacturing. By 1878, he had bought out Lechner and formed the Jeffrey Manufacturing Co. Originally based in downtown Columbus, the company soon acquired several acres along the railroad tracks on the northeast side of the city. Over time, it would become the home of more than 5,000 workers making the widest variety of mining equipment.

Jeffrey died in 1928 at the height of one of the greatest periods of economic growth ever seen in the United States.

The story of the Jeffrey Manufacturing Co. usually is focused on how this small company perfected its products and sold them to an industry whose management and workers looked upon the mechanization of coal mining with disdain and some trepidation. The mining industry wondered if machines could ever really replace people in the mines. The fears were well-placed, since the machines did replace some people.

But no matter how well the machines worked, they still needed to be operated by real people. Jeffrey Mining Machines in their time demonstrated that innovation by men and machines could take mining and miners to places they had never been before.

But who exactly was this man who made it all happen?

Jeffrey in 1876 was 40 years old. He was married with children and was trying to find a way to make his fortune in Ohio's capital city. Like many men of his era, he was looking for a way to reinvent himself as a success.

The story begins with Jeffrey's father. James Jeffrey came to Ohio from New Jersey in the years after Ohio statehood in 1803. Like many early settlers, he often was on the move. He married in Warren County, and by 1836 he was farming and trading in Clinton County. It was there in the village of Clarksville that Joseph Jeffrey was born in 1836. James Jeffrey and his wife would have four children, two of whom died in infancy.

The Jeffreys moved on and eventually settled in Auglaize County in northwest Ohio. It was there that Joseph Jeffrey attended the common schools of the day. He did well enough that he graduated from high school in St. Mary's in 1856. He then spent the next two years working in a dry goods store in St. Mary's.

Believing a better life awaited him elsewhere, he came to Columbus in 1858 to undertake a course of study at Granger's Business College. This was not one of the elite business schools of its day, but it did a good job in teaching bookkeeping and basic business principles.

Fresh from business school, he entered the banking company of Rickley and Brother. Over the next several years, Jeffrey rose through the ranks from bookkeeper to teller to cashier.

In 1866, the Rickley brothers decided to go into retail. Jeffrey left the bank and moved to Cincinnati, where he joined the firm of Rickley, Howell and Co., dealers in carpet and household goods.

That venture ended in 1869. Jeffrey returned to Columbus and helped S.S. Rickley form a new bank -- the Commercial Bank. After a year of business, Rickley sold out to local businessman Francis Sessions. It was from this bank that Jeffrey, as cashier, took his walk and saw the machine that would change his life.

He persuaded Sessions and others to finance the new enterprise initially, and a new business was born.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.