Allis-Chalmers Betatron Lab

 

H20

Every now and then I learn something new about Allis-Chalmers. One of those new tidbits I have recently discovered is the betatron lab the company had at the West Allis Works. Last year I had the opportunity to step inside this old testing lab and see some of the equipment left behind. The machine was essentially a giant X-ray used to inspect for imperfections in the large components made in the foundry. This was housed in a small concrete lab on the factory grounds.

A site was chosen on a bluff on the northeast side of the complex where the foundry dumped waste sand. It was close enough for equipment to be hauled in by rail and truck but also far enough away to avoid interference from ground vibrations caused by factory presses and hammers. The building was finished and operational in September of 1952 and cost $342,000. The company said that the cost of the betatron lab was recouped in less than a year from savings earned from inspecting equipment for quality and precision.

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The walls of the “L” shaped x-ray bay were constructed with steel reinforced concrete walls that were 6 feet thick and 20 feet high. Approximately 1000 cubic yards of concrete were used. The bay had a 25-ton bridge crane that moved components into position and then reloaded them on trailers or rail cars. The 22 million volt betatron hung suspended from a 7.5-ton bridge crane that allowed the unit to be moved around the entire work space. It could raised 20 feet above the floor, rotated 360 degrees around and tilted 170 degrees. In addition to the testing bay, the building had several other rooms for the testing processes. The control room housed the equipment that operated the giant x-ray behind the thick concrete walls. There was also a darkroom and viewing room that processed the film. Other areas included the electrical equipment room, storage, offices and wash rooms.

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Safety was one of the major components that went into designing and building the lab. The thick concrete structure shielded workers inside and out from the radiation exposure. Safety switches and warning devices were put in place to protect technicians from accidental exposure. After testing was completed, workers tested the lab with radiation meters to ensure no radiation escaped from the bay.

Allis-Chalmers made other betatron units for medical use in cancer treatment. Just another fine example of the sophisticated products the great Milwaukee manufacturer had a hand in.

Allis-Chalmers Greendale Research Facility

In 1958, Allis-Chalmers announced that it would build a research laboratory for development and testing of nuclear technology. The 30-acre site chosen was a few miles south of West Allis in the village of  Greendale, Wisconsin, a planned community built during the Great Depression. The facility consisted of 2 main structures totaling 27,000 square feet* of space for labs, office areas, and a machine shop and staffed by 200 employees. (1) The laboratory was up and running by 1959, and scientists at the laboratory were able to conduct Wisconsin’s very first nuclear reaction in a model reactor they built. (2)

The company’s need for an advanced research facility can be traced back to Allis-Chalmers’ work with the Manhattan Project during World War II. The Hawley Plant, built at the West Allis Works, housed operations for filling wartime orders–one being equipment that helped build the first atom bomb. Management at Allis-Chalmers could see the peaceful uses of atomic energy for the future. (3)

Interior of facility at Argonne National Laboratory –notice AC logo at lower left.(Will Davis-atomicpowerreview.blogspot.com)

In October 1954, the company was awarded a contract by the Atomic Energy Commission to build equipment for an experimental reactor at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.  The scientists at the laboratory built the reactor components, and Allis-Chalmers designed and built the power systems. (4) This was one of several AC nuclear energy projects. It’s work in the nuclear field prompted the company to establish a nuclear power division and erect the facility in Greendale.

Fuel Cell Testing Courtesy of West Allis Historical Society)

Fuel Cell Testing (Courtesy of West Allis Historical Society

)In 1959, Allis-Chalmers introduced a tractor powered by fuel cells–the first vehicle of its kind. This breakthrough launched the company into another field of advanced technology. Soon scientists and engineers with the company were building fuel cell components that powered golf carts, submarines, forklifts, and space equipment for NASA.  The U.S. Military began ordering millions of dollars worth of fuel cell equipment for military projects. (5)

Greendale Expansion Project 1966 (Courtesy of West Allis Historical Society

)In 1966, Allis-Chalmers announced that the Greendale facility would be expanded to include the fuel cell technology. Work on fuel cells had been done at the West Allis Works and a lab in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (north of West Allis). The addition to the Greendale complex was roughly 20,000 square feet**. About 500 employees worked at the Greendale facility on both the fuel cell and atomic energy programs at Allis-Chalmers. (6)

Despite relative success in the fields, Allis-Chalmers shut down these branches of the company. Management divested in the nuclear testing program in 1966. The government canceled its contracts for fuel cell equipment as interest in the space program waned. As a result, Allis-Chalmers laid off workers and eventually shut down that program as well. By the early 1970s, the Greendale facility sat vacant.

 

 


(1) MKE Sentinel 01/7/1958
(2) MKE Sentinel 11/13/1959
(3)An Industrial Heritage-pg 350
(4)MKE Sentinel 10/8/1954
(5)Fuel Cell Accomplishments of Allis-Chalmers Research Division. Box 8, Folder 41 “Fuel Cell Technology, Allis Chalmers Corporation Files. Milwaukee County Historical Society
(6)MKE Journal 01/10/1966

*Figures announced in a press release said 23,000 sq/ft, but company information shows 27,000 sq/ft.

** Figures announced in a press release said 32,000 sq/ft, but company information shows 20,000 sq/ft.

 

AC Drafting Table

About 6 years ago I had the opportunity to acquire an awesome piece of AC history that I couldn’t pass up. We restored a Farmall M for an implement dealership, and the gentleman who set up the restoration said he had a piece of Allis-Chalmers history I might be interested in. He showed me these pictures of a drafting table from the Allis-Chalmers factory in West Allis.

I think I paid $70 for it. I have actually never seen it put together. I got it home and it went into the rafters in my folks’ garage. Seems silly, but it is a big piece of furniture! My plan was always to set it up once I got a place of my own, which is what is going to happen now. I think it would be fun to get a blueprint of a tractor or other part that AC drafted to display it on the drafting board side. Once in a while an AC blueprint will show up on Ebay, but maybe AGCO Corp would be able to help me out.

This drafting table is a May-O-Matic built by Mayline in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The company began in 1939 specializing in drafting tables, blueprint files, and straightedges. I contacted the company to ask if they have any record or information about this desk. Unfortunately, the company does not because of its age; However, they were able to tell me this:

We don’t have a great deal of information to pass along.  The drawer pull was used until the late ‘70s, at least until 1977.  We do not have a record of how many Allis Chalmers bought, but I would imagine they had quite a large engineering department back then.

Like the Mayline representative said, Allis-Chalmers had a huge engineering department; which makes me wonder what happened to all the others when the place cleared out? I am pretty fortunate and happy that I acquired this piece. Once I get this all set up I will be sure to share some pictures of it.