The Story of Carl Friden and His Company

The Plan

There was no shortage of Doubting Thomases when the Friden Calculating Machine Company, Inc. began operations in 1933.

Carl Friden had invented one of the leading models of calculating machines, and now he must do it all over again - but without infringing on any of the dozens of patents he had already taken out on his first calculator and later sold. This, said experts in the field, was expecting entirely too much of any inventor. Worst of all, Friden and his associates were going into business at a time when the country's economy was in the dismal depths of depression days.

So there was little encouragement for Friden or his small band of calculator builders. Friden gave that challenge the only answer he knew. He bet his bottom dollar on the American system of free enterprise and his own brilliant plan for the building of a simplified Rotoflow Drive, one-way non reversible, fully automatic tabulating calculator.

That plan was the only real asset the new company had. Its plant was a small rented building on East 12th Street in Oakland, California. There was little equipment and less money. A few men did all the varied things that had to be done.

Today, the Friden Calculating Machine Company, Inc. is housed in a multi-million dollar, seven acre production "palace" in San Leandro, a fast-growing industrial center of the San Francisco Bay Area located just south of Oakland. This most modern factory of its kind in the nation produces Friden Fully Automatic Calculators at the rate of one every few minutes - and it has to. Otherwise, production would fall far behind the constant customer demand.

This service is supervised by company controlled sales and service agencies in more than 250 cities of the United States and Canada. There are also distributors in approximately 115 other countries and colonies, extending the Friden organization to every corner of the world.

From almost the first moment the original hand-tooled Friden Model "A" was shown to public view, there has been a race to provide the needed tools and production space to meet unprecedented customer demand.

At first, in Oakland, it was simply a matter of getting the job done with limited facilities. In those days, "everyone did everything."

Many of the men who today hold principal positions in Friden engineering and production departments were all-around specialists then, darting from drafting boards to benches, tooling needed parts by hand. The first dies were carefully capped in charcoal, then hardened with a gasoline blow torch. When the first heavy equipment arrived, everyone helped set up the machinery.

The men took turns sweeping out the plant, bringing wood to heat the building, dashing out for sandwiches and other quick snacks for workers to eat at their benches. Friden and his associates often worked well past midnight, then returned at dawn to begin another long day. They willingly shared the financial troubles of the budding company, and even provided most of their own tools!

Four friends came to the firm's aid with funds to add to Carl Friden's limited finances. Completion of the first model was desperately needed to provide capital for the expansion they felt would soon be demanded. These friends were: Waiter S. Johnson, now Friden president and also president of the American Forest Products Corporation and its many affiliates, San Francisco; Charles T. Gruenhagen, secretary-treasurer of the same company, now secretary treasurer of the Friden Calculating Machine Company, Inc.; J. B. Lewis, then sales manager of American Box, as the lumber firm was first known, now a member of the Friden Company board of directors; and C. A. Webster, who was president of the Stockton Box Company at the time, since deceased.

These four executives, unlike hundreds of other businessmen who had opportunity to invest in the young firm, had faith in Carl Friden to overcome what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. When they visited the small factory to see Friden's "magic" calculator, he could show them only a skeleton of a machine. There was nothing that would run, nothing that resembled a finished calculator.

One of his new backers even asked: "But where is the calculator!" Yet those friends invested twice more in Friden's experiments before he had the company in full-fledged operation.

Finally, the great day arrived - the first model was completed and the production was ready to begin. John M. Lund, now chairman of the executive committee, came from his important executive post with a leading calculator manufacturer to aid his old friend in sales promotion. Associated for many years with Friden, Lund held great admiration for his inventive and executive ability.

Lund took the first calculator under his arm and began a tour, which brought him to nearly every state and into Canada. When that first - and only - Friden wasn't available, he made calls anyhow. Demonstrations or not, he convinced dozens of outstanding calculator salesmen of Friden superiority and took many cash-in-advance orders vitally needed to continue plant operations.

The ready acceptance of the calculator spurred pioneer members of the company to even greater activity. They parked their cars on the street as the punch press department, crowded out of the factory, took over the garage. Some even took jobs to their homes, and one worker - the late Borgar Christiansen - was continually being called upon to "hurry home for more cover parts."

Despite this frantic production, Friden insisted that quality he maintained throughout. It was reported that some of the first machines to be shipped would not work upon arrival until they had been readjusted. There were only a few completed machines in the plant, but Friden took one of them, fastened it in a shipping crate, and took it to the top of a 25 - step stairway. Then, while his staff stared, he kicked it downstairs and against a concrete wall. "We thought of stopping him," admitted one of Friden's associates, "but, after all, it was his machine."

After an afternoon of throwing around calculators, Friden worked out a method of "floating" the machines in their crates which is still in use today. When the calculator could be kicked down the concrete step, land against a concrete wall and then work without adjustment, he was satisfied.

In summer of 1934, the first calculator was taken off the sales demonstration assignment long enough to be shipped to Washington for government tests, The machine was given typical use in Federal offices and, on the basis of this on-the-job test, easily qualified for government service. In the following years, thousands of Friden Calculators have been ordered by nearly every branch of the government.

Less than three years after the first drawings of the Friden Calculator were completed, immediate expansion became essential. Wesley L. Plunkett, treasurer and assistant general manager (since retired), was sent out to find a location for a new and larger plant. The growing industrial prominence of San Leandro attracted Plunkett and, after careful consideration of many sites, a l4-acre location running between East 14th Street and Washington Avenue was selected. In addition to frontage on two principal thoroughfares, it afforded easy access to rail, truck and airline shipping facilities.

The building was to be streamlined "just like the Calculator." It was to be a credit to the San Leandro community and "large enough to fill our needs for years to come." And, it did seem huge on that gala day in 1936 when doors of the beautiful building were thrown open to a growing Friden Family of almost 400 people.

That first Friden Factory - "built to last years" - was sufficient for only a year before expansion was ordered. The expansion has continued each year. In 1945, a million-dollar building program was completed, adding more than 86,000 square feet of floor space in three huge buildings and several extensions to former plant buildings. Another million-dollar burst in 1948-49 put five full Friden acres in calculator production, and a similar program in 1952-53 still further expanded plant facilities. Additionally, the Friden firm greeted the new year of 1954 by putting into use two complete new buildings and two large new front wings to permit further expansion of sales, service, research and administration activities.

Today, the original factory unit houses only segments of the business, sales and factory office departments, and almost 2,000 people gain their livelihood through jobs within the continually growing plant. Almost every year, engineers and architects have been called upon to draw plans for vast expansions to the plant area. Dozens of smaller additions have been made.

Now, seven acres of floor area are devoted exclusively to the manufacture of Friden Fully Automatic Calculators, the largest rotary-type calculator plant in America.

Much of the credit for this success story goes to Waiter S. Johnson, Carl Friden's long - time friend, who assumed presidency of the concern at the time of Friden's death in April, 1945, and the general management of John M. Lund, now chairman of the executive committee. Johnson has been a member of the Friden board of directors since the company's incorporation in 1934, and has given generously of the experience he has gained as president of a number of companies and director of many more.

Under Johnson's keen judgment, production has surged ahead. With his guidance the Friden factory has grown to be the largest calculator factory in the nation with a straight-line production set-up second to none in the world. Completely conveyorized sub assembly, assembly and inspection lines speed Friden Calculators to the shipping department at a rate unheard of in calculator production of the past.

Costly equipment speeds the fabrication of parts and manufacture of highly accurate dies and gauges to save the time necessary to assure conservative production costs. Light, airy, spacious buildings and good employee relations insure working conditions conducive to worker productivity.

Rapid growth of the Friden Calculating Machine Company, Inc. and the excellence of its product drew attention of the United States government during the early days of the European war and long before Pearl Harbor, the Friden Company was engaged in the production of vitally needed war materials for our country. Even while the Friden Calculator production continued to provide the country and the government with as many calculators as possible, records were being set in the manufacture of bomb nose fuses, shells. electronically controlled tachometers and many other articles of ordnance.

As part of the defense building program. the Friden Company produced hundreds of hand operated Friden Calculators for use in the unelectrified advance posts of the Army, Navy, and Marines.

In the post-World War II years, particularly during and since the Korean conflict, the Friden Company has continued to fill government contracts - defense items as well as the calculators needed in today's specialized warfare.

With World War I1 nearly at an end and the Friden Company starting plans which have led to the vast expansion of the factory and sales organization, life ended for Carl M. Friden.

His premature death (he was only 54) came as a shock to inventors and engineers throughout the world. His typical Swedish shyness for personal publicity kept Carl Friden from being too well known among the general public. Among business and engineering associations, however, and every place where invention is the subject of discussion, Friden was a well-known personality. He held more than 500 patents in his own name, and had been told by many that this constituted a record among American inventors.

Death of Carl Friden served as a spur and incentive to Walter S. Johnson, John M. Lund, Wesley PIunkett and the company founder's highly experienced engineering and production department personnel They immediately rallied to carry out his plans.

The defense building portion of the factory was completely remodeled and the new buildings started, all to carry out the intent and purpose of removing the tremendous war-time calculator sales backlog so that regular peace time production could be resumed.

The buildings are now complete, the goal has been met. Carl M. Friden, were he still with us, could well look his Doubting Thomases straight in the eye with an "I told you so."

But he wouldn't. He was too firmly sold on America and the American system of free enterprise. He had merely bet on his country and his calculator - and won!


Copyright 1973, by Barbro F. Alexander


Copyright 2013 Frank O. Rauck, Nashua, New Hampshire, USA