South Bend

South Bend Lathe Co.
South Bend Lathe Co.
Bellingham, WA 98227
(360) 734-1540

Fax: (360) 676-1075

Before the Web, before satellites, before fiber optics, hypertext, and modems, telegraphs
linked the world. One cable address known to many at that time was "Twins." If you wired this
address, you would reach John and Miles O'Brien, founders of South Bend Lathe Works. The
brothers were identical twins who looked so much alike, even their close friends could not tell
them apart, despite that one lost
three fingers in an accident.

How Miles lost his fingers is not known. Perhaps he lost them while running one of the lathes
the brothers designed, built and tested in the one-room shop they established in 1906 as The
South Bend Machine Tool Company. This endeavor was the culmination of 20 years of
tool-and-die experience. They were born in Cork County, Ireland in 1868, and were raised by
their father after their mother died in childbirth. The family immigrated to Connecticut in the
1870's where John and Miles attended public and parochial schools. At the age of 15, they
found jobs at the Stanley Works plant in New England where they began learning their trade.
Miles worked for a time under the tutelage of Thomas Edison, until the inventor told the
brothers to round out their machine shop experience with engineering courses. They attended
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, then worked at various jobs around the state. At
one time, John was hired as a superintendent in a bicycle plant, but it wasn't until a year later
the owner discovered Miles actually filled the job, because John already worked
in Elkhart, Indiana.

At the age of 35, the brothers decided to set up their own shop, and build a lathe they had
been designing since before Miles' days at the Edison Phonograph Company. They rented a
one-room shop filled with equipment for $65 a month at the corner of W. Washington and
Johnson Streets in South Bend, Indiana. At one point, they built an engine used for blowing
out boiler tubes for their landlord. When he asked them to make more, they declined. They
wanted to concentrate solely on lathes, the most fundamental of machine tools. As a result,
the O'Brien's were invited to find another shop in which to make their lathes. So in 1908, they
moved into a rented portion of the former Singer Sewing Machine plant on E. Madison Street
in South Bend, and became South Bend Lathe Works, to more accurately reflect their product.
By 1919, South Bend Lathe Works manufactured 44 sizes of one style of lathe, and by 1930,
built 47 percent of the engine lathes in the United States during 1929 and 1930, according to
a news report published in 1931, which cited a study by the U. S. Commerce department.

In the quarter century since its founding, South Bend Lathe Works became the largest
exclusive manufacturer of metalworking precision lathes in the world, with customers in over
88 countries. The machines were used in every type of industry, in schools, home workshops,
and large manufacturers from Bermuda to Mali, Indochina, and Siberia. South Bend lathes
were chosen by engineers and scientists who accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd on his two
expeditions into anarctica. They were used where the finest accuracy was required, "including
airplane and radio equipment," according to the South Bend Tribune in 1936. Miles died that
year, ending a life-long partnership. Part of their success was their willingness to work as
equals. Both had the title "President" on their business cards. One would serve as president,
and one as secretary-treasurer, and every two years, they exchanged duties.

Much of their success was due also to their focus on training skilled machinists. John O'Brien
wrote "How to Run a Lathe," which sold millions of copies all over the world, as well as
manuals on setting up and maintaining lathes. At least 75 percent of the schools and colleges
in the United States were using South Bend lathes in their engineering, vocational, and
technical departments, according to an early South Bend paper, The New-Times. They also
developed and marketed an affordable 9-inch precision lathe for the home workshop, capable
of the same accuracy as machines used in industry. Thirty years after two men set out to build
one lathe, 475 men and women were employed manufacturing about 100 different styles of
lathes ranging in size from nine- to 16-inch swing and bed lengths from two to 14 feet, and 40
different attachments for them. During the World War II years, South Bend Lathe Works not
only received government contracts to build lathes, but a bureau of ordinance flag, and the
prestigious "E" pennant, the highest award bestowed on a manufacturing organzation by the
U. S. Navy for outstanding performance on navy contracts. The year following the war's end,
John O'Brien died.

Changes continued after the war. In 1959 American Steel, later known as Amsted Industries,
of Chicago, Illinois, bought South Bend Lathe Works with its workforce of 360. In the following
years, the product line was expanded, and included drilling and tapping machines, and
mechanical presses. The company also moved into the old Studebaker plant on Sample
Street in South Bend in 1965. Amsted almost closed the plant in 1975, but its 500 employees
and city officials applied for an Employee Stock Ownership Plan grant, and made it the largest
employee-owned plant in the
U. S. The next year, Time magazine reported a financial turn-around for South Bend Lathe
Works in an article about Employee Ownership Stock Plans. The article said the boost in
productivity was due to economic recovery in the U. S., but that South Bend Lathe might not
exist at all, were it not for the ESOP. In 1980, the company introduced its first CNC-controlled
lathe, the Cyclone.

Today, our product line includes much more than lathes, but we still get requests for the
10-inch belt-driven toolroom lathe, a standard for over 40 years. Times have changed since
the O'Brien brothers, "the Henry Fords of the lathe," set up their one-room shop. This was a
era when South Bend, Indiana, was a manufacturing center, with Studebaker, the Oliver Plow
Company, and the Singer Sewing Machine Company, among others. Many of those
companies are gone. And certainly, our last twenty-five years were not like our first, yet
similarities remain. John and Miles O'Brien set out with the single-minded dedication to build
the best lathe they could, and they succeeded. With much sacrifice and hard work, we've
maintained that tradition, and will into the next century.
amt Modern Machine Shop Production Machining Moldmaking Technology

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