Early years

At the dawn of the 20th century, a spirit of innovation was in the air and a myriad of technologies appeared to fulfill new aspirations and emerging needs. Powerful new electrical equipment needed a tough, lightweight material for insulation. Thus, in 1913, Formica Corporation was born.

Daniel J. O’Conor was a young engineer with an idea: take fabric, coat it with resin as it winds on a spindle, then slit the roll of fabric lengthwise, press flat and cure. The result: a laminated material that was strong, light and an excellent electrical insulator.

A research engineer at Westinghouse, O’Conor shared his discovery with Herbert A. Faber, a Westinghouse sales manager trained as an engineer who quickly saw the industrial potential of O’Conor’s new material.

O’Conor filed for a patent in February of 1913 – and was rewarded with one dollar, the amount Westinghouse paid for rights to employee inventions. Within weeks, O’Conor and Faber quit Westinghouse to start their own business, enlisting lawyer and banker John G. Tomlin as an investor. Tomlin put up $7,500 and became a silent partner in the fledgling business.

If O’Conor conceived the product, Faber devised the name "Formica"—referring to the insulating properties of the new material, which acted as a substitute “for mica,” a mineral often used for electrical insulation. The company began operations on May 2, 1913, filling an order for V-rings from Chalmers Motor Company. By September, Formica Products Company, as it was known, had 18 employees hard pressed to meet the demand for electric motor parts by Bell Electric Motor, Ideal Electric and Northwest Electric.

Faber and O’Conor renamed their company The Formica Insulation Company in its first year. As president and treasurer, Faber ran the business side. O’Conor, as vice president and secretary, handled the technical and manufacturing end, as well as sales. It was a partnership that would endure for decades.

The Company’s early success drew the attention of giants. Westinghouse started making plastic laminates, buying resin from the Bakelite Company, as did Formica Insulation Company. Soon, Bakelite licensed only Westinghouse to make sheet laminate. Formica Insulation Company was limited to the less profitable tubes and rings. Faber and O’Conor started looking for a new resin process and found “Redmanol,” a resin developed by L.V. Redman.

Free to produce sheet laminate, Faber & O’Conor rented a plant near the Cincinnati stockyard, installed a new $6,000 press and produced their first laminate sheet on July 4, 1914. The company turned a profit for the first time in 1916; then boomed with defense orders in 1917 when the U.S. entered the war in Europe. Growth continued unabated with sales hitting $175,000 in 1919, forcing the Company to move to the Winton Place neighborhood in Cincinnati, which remained the site of Formica Insulation Company headquarters until after World War II.

An important new market appeared in the 1920’s: automotive timing gears. Quickly, Faber & O'Conor convinced a Chicago parts maker to try gears cut from phenolic resin blanks. The new gears were tough and quiet – and by 1932, Formica Insulation Company was producing 6,000 gear blanks a day for Chevrolet, Studebaker, Buick, Auburn, Pontiac and Willy-Overland.

In 1927, Formica Insulation Company obtained a patent on an opaque barrier sheet that allowed the use of rotogravure printing to make decorative wood-grained or marble-surfaced laminate. Developed by the Company’s George H. Clark and Jack D. Cochrane, it was the first of many innovations that were to make the name "Formica" synonymous with café tables and kitchen countertops.

By 1937, Formica Corporation sales reached $3.5 million – up from $1.9 million in 1923 and a mere $360,000 in 1921. And in Scotland, the Formica® brand name got a publicity boost when designers selected Formica® laminates to create sleek wall surfaces for The Queen Mary, a luxurious new ocean liner in the Cunard White Star Line.

The following year, a new resin appeared: melamine. Developed by American Cyanamid Company, melamine resisted heat, abrasion and moisture better than phenolic or urea and could be used to make more colors. It could also be molded. Soon, Formica Corporation was buying every ounce of melamine American Cyanamid made.

War was about to grip the world. Like many companies, Formica Corporation benefited from defense work, developing a new glass-melamine laminate and early silicone and epoxy laminates. Plastic-impregnated “Pregwood” was used in airplane propellers and “burster tubes” used in bombs, which generated the Company’s single biggest order. War production peak in 1943 reached $15.7 million in sales.

Following the end of World War II in 1946, Formica Corporation entered the European market through a license agreement with De La Rue Company of London. European manufacturing and marketing rights continued to be held by the British firm until 1977.

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