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Henry Harnischfeger (1855 – 1930) is the co-founder of Harnischfeger Industries Inc. Today, the company, as part of Joy Global Inc., markets surface mining equipment through its P&H Mining Equipment division, (named after the company’s original incarnation); underground mining equipment is marketed through the Joy Mining Machinery division.
Harnischfeger is responsible for the invention of the first gasoline-powered dragline. This Construction Equipment Hall of Fame inductee also developed the first three-motor electric traveling crane. Harnischfeger’s equipment is recognized as having pioneered the development of a variety of excavation equipment, trenchers, back fillers, tampers, power shovels, and cranes.
Known as one of the most gifted business leaders in Milwaukee’s history, Harnischfeger was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce, Wisconsin’s Natural History Society, and various charities.
Harnischfeger’s life began on July 10, 1855 in Salmuenster Kreischlichtern, Hessen Nassau, an old German town. Having been educated at the Order of Saint Francis by monks, Harnischfeger briefly considered joining the brothers as a monk; he was also interested in becoming a tailor. With the encouragement of the Franciscan brothers, however, Harnischfeger decided to seek a position as a locksmith apprentice. After apprenticing in the nearby city of Orb for three years, Harnischfeger moved to Fulda, securing a job in a railroad repair shop. Following this, Harnischfeger got a job as a journeyman with a locksmith.
Eventually, Harnischfeger made the decision to move to America. With his parents’ blessing, he began his trip on March 23, 1872; he arrived in Castle Gardens, New Jersey about two weeks later, on April 9. Upon arriving, Harnischfeger took residence with his cousin Michael, a bakeshop owner. Through Michael, he met some acquaintances employed at the Singer Sewing Machine Co., and soon joined them at the firm, manufacturing sewing machine parts. Due to a lack of business, Harnischfeger was laid off after a year. However, Harnischfeger was able to quickly find employment as a locksmith at a local business.
After six months at the locksmith shop, Harnischfeger decided to move to Providence, Rhode Island; he secured a position with Rhode Island Locomotive Works. He later sought and obtained employment with Brown & Sharpe, where he worked on measuring devices such as calipers. As economic hardships befell the company, Harnischfeger was laid off.
Following the layoff in Providence, Harnischfeger moved to Brooklyn, working at a saloon while searching for employment as a locksmith. He briefly worked as a manufacturer of trunk parts. Before long, Singer Sewing Machine Co. opened a new factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Harnischfeger rejoined the company, where he worked in the tool department for seven years, from 1874 to 1881. Over the course of his employment at singer, Harnischfeger was studying engineering. At the same time, he designed and built the first automatic screw machine.
In 1881, Harnischfeger moved to Milwaukee to work at Whitehill Sewing Machine Co. as a toolmaker. Mr. Whitehill, an inventor who lacked business sense, shut down his sewing machine operation in 1883. He maintained a general job shop, and Harnischfeger worked as the foreman of the tool department.
In November 1884, Alonzo Pawling, who had been employed as a wood patternmaker at Whitehill Sewing Machine Co, asked Harnischfeger to join him in a partnership. As Whitehill’s business was faltering, he accepted. The two officially became business partners on December 1, 1884—Harnischfeger would be the businessman, and Pawling, the engineer.
The early company was modest, based in a small, dilapidated building. Eventually, however, business began to steady as the partners produced a variety of components and machines for other firms.
Though P&H was faring well, Harnischfeger’s ambition was to build a product line that could “produce and market itself.” In 1887, he got an opportunity to realize this dream. The partners were sought to help improve an E.P. Allis Co. crane that had fallen, killing a worker. The improved crane, powered by three electric motors, was safer and more durable. Customers noted that the crane was superior to the original, and began to request more of these Pawling & Harnischfeger models. As a result of Harnischfeger’s ambition, the company, having shipped their first crane in 1888, was now becoming known as simply P&H, and its popularity rose.
In 1914, following years of unpredictable business, Pawling died, and P&H became known as Harnischfeger Corp. Around this time, in response to the company’s previous economic downturns, Harnischfeger began to seek a product line that would remain constantly profitable to avoid further financial hardships. He decided on earthmoving equipment, intending to help build America’s growing infrastructure. After World War I, Harnischfeger unveiled one of his most significant developments: the first gasoline-powered dragline, a truck mounted machine used for lifting, pile driving, clamming, dragging. Further introductions included a shovel-type, crawler mounted excavator, and a backhoe. Eventually, due to the popularity of the machines in both mining and construction, Harnischfeger became a strong presence in both industries. By the year of his death in 1930, his company employed 1500 people.