John Gordon Battelle was, in a sense, the last of a certain sort of American – and the first of another sort.
Battelle was a complex man, and his roots were deep in the American story. But he, like most men of this time, constantly was looking for new ways to do things in a better way.
Battelle worked in iron and found success in Columbus in the late 1800s.
To understand the importance of what Battelle did and how he did it, it is useful to look at how the iron industry worked in Columbus over the years.
By the time Ohio came to be occupied by settlers from the East, the need for iron tools and implements was not apparent. The topsoil in Ohio was up to 5 feet deep; the wooden plows of eastern origin broke the new soil easily, and most of the tools, implements and fasteners needed by frontier settlers were easily fashioned by local blacksmiths.
In time, the situation changed, and local farmers began to find a need for plows that were stronger and more resilient. The response was an iron plow.
In cities and towns across the United States, local entrepreneurs began to manufacture the iron tools needed by local residents. In Columbus, a man named Joseph Ridgeway opened an iron foundry at the foot of what then was the State Street bridge on the east side of the Scioto River. In that foundry, Ridgeway, aided by his son and several others, began to produce plows.
In later years, the factory would be acquired by Peter Hayden and added to Hayden’s list of profitable enterprises. But the factory produced local tools for a local clientele and little else. This would prove to be a disadvantage in the years after the Civil War as change came to the iron industry. With the widespread adoption of the Bessemer production process, the Age of Cast Iron was making way for the Age of Steel.
Born in 1845 in what is now Clarksburg, West Virginia, Battelle came from a long line of Americans who had been living on the edge of the frontier. The Battelle family was French in its roots, but the family had lived in England since the 1100s as part of the Norman conquest of that country. Battelles had come to America in the 1640s, and forebears of John Battelle had been actively involved in the American Revolution.
In the wake of that struggle, Battelle’s great-grandfather had been one of the Ohio Company of Associates settling Marietta in 1788. The Battelles had been in Ohio for some time, but John Battelle’s immediate forebears had moved across the river to the Virginia side.
Battelle grew up in Clarksburg and attended local schools. Accepted for admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he was unable to attend due to the early death of his father and the need of Battelle to financially support his mother and six sisters. This he did by working through the Civil War as a quartermaster.
The experience served him well as he learned the art and science of moving a lot of resources – people and products – to the right place at the right time.
In 1866, while holding a job with a chinaware company as a bookkeeper, he began working with the Norway Manufacturing Corp. of Wheeling, a metal-production company.
From that company, he moved on to a number of others, along the way learning how to work with iron and its products.
In 1902, then living in New York, he learned of the formation of a new company working in iron and steel in Columbus. Several acquaintances persuaded him to take an interest in the new company. He liked what he saw, invested in the new company and came to Columbus.
The new Columbus Iron and Steel Co. was part of a new wave of steel production in the United States. No longer simply making local products for local markets, the new steel mills served national and international customers.
By 1910, there were four steel mills in Columbus, and all were busy. Columbus Iron and Steel was one of them, and Battelle operated it until it merged with the new American Rolling Mill Co., or ARMCO, in 1917.
Battelle died in May 1918, leaving the operation of his steel empire to his son, Gordon. Gordon Battelle died a few years later, leaving a will that created the Battelle Memorial Institute, now one of the largest private research organizations in the world.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.