For six decades in Washington, including 25 years on the Everett waterfront, the Western Gear Corporation designed and built cutting-edge industrial products for customers around the world. Its projects ranged from mountaintop telescopes that explored the stars and tracked spacecraft, to machinery that lifted 14 million pounds of equipment and payload from the floor of the Pacific Ocean, to the gear-driven turntable that moves the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle in Seattle. Sold to a Wisconsin company in 1982, Western Gear was closed in 1986 to make room for construction of Naval Station Everett.
Beginnings in San Francisco
Pacific Gear & Tool Works began in San Francisco in 1888 as a machine and gear grinding shop. Fire from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, destroyed the business, but owner Philip L. "P. L." Bannan Sr. (1873–1944) immediately ordered replacement equipment and rebuilt his business in a nearby frame structure. By 1910 he had built a brick building on Folsom Street, where the company remained until the 1950s.
Bannan and his wife Teresa Kelly Bannan (1875-1964) had 10 children: four girls, Margaret (1905–1993), Teresa (1908–1982), Bernice (1910–1993), and Pat (1918-2011), and six boys. Five of the boys: Thomas "T. J." (1902–1993), Philip Jr. (1903–1971), Berchman "Berk" (1907–1969), Charles (1915–1997), and Bernard (1920–1997), followed their father into the business. They started by sweeping floors, followed by apprenticeship training and college. The other brother, Louis (1914–1998), became a Jesuit priest. Later Berk’s son, Philip B. Bannan (b. 1939), became the only third-generation Bannan to join the company.
Merger with Seattle Firm
Meanwhile in Seattle, R. C. Frankie had established the Patent Machinery Company in 1905 on 1st Avenue South. The company moved to 4th Avenue South in 1907, was renamed Western Gear Works in 1914, and relocated to a larger facility at 417 9th Ave South in 1916, where it remained until 1962. The company manufactured gears and gear boxes for many uses. A Seattle Times newspaper ad in March 1921 described the business: "We Make the Gears That Turn the Wheels of Industry. From gears for the family washing machine, the farmer's cream separator, the Anaconda Copper Company – to the ships that sail the seven seas. WE MAKE GEARS." Yet by early 1929, Frankie had concluded there was no future in the gear and machinery business and decided to sell his company, which then had more than 100 employees.
With business good in San Francisco and the stock market booming, Bannan purchased Western Gear Works from Frankie in 1929 and it became a Bannan family enterprise. Bannan sent his three oldest sons -- Tom, Phil Jr., and Berk, ages 28, 26 and 22, respectively -- to Seattle to assume management of the company. Their father remained in California to continue managing the business there, but provided good fatherly business and personal advice to his sons in the form of typed letters, sharing what he had learned from his own experience in running a successful business.
On October 13, 1929, The Seattle Times featured a full-page profile of Western Gear Works. In the article, vice-president Tom Bannan explained that modern factories were using electric motors to drive production machinery through reduction gear boxes instead of the older line-shaft systems that used pulleys and belts to drive multiple machines from a single motor. Gear boxes were more dependable and easier to maintain than belts and pulleys. This created a big market for Western Gear Works products. Tom Bannan forecast sales of a thousand gearboxes to Weyerhaeuser and more to the lumber, pulp, and mining industries in the Western U.S., Canada, and Alaska.
Just over two weeks later, however, the 1929 stock market crash signaled the start of the Great Depression, and by 1934, employment at Western Gear Works was down to 11 people, including the three Bannan brothers. Frankie, who got out just in time, had purchased a 57-foot motor yacht, the Kensington, in 1931 and was presumably enjoying it. But by 1935 Western Gear Works' business was getting back to normal with about 75 people back at work.
World War II and After
In the 1940s the company manufactured equipment for the war effort. Western Gear built the ramp and bow-door machinery for the military's LST (tank landing ship) amphibious craft, including those that landed the U.S. troops in France on D-Day. It also made gear boxes, speed reducers, cranes, hoists, winches, replenishment-at-sea systems, and other equipment for U.S. Navy warships. To keep up with demand, the company expanded its Seattle factory to increase production capacity.
Another Seattle company, Webster-Brinkley, was building steering engines and deck machinery for Navy ships. Tom Bannan purchased that company and then served as vice president and general manager of both companies. The two companies were on war-time schedules, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1943 both companies received the Army-Navy "E" award in recognition of their efficiency in war production.
In December 1953, Western Gear formally absorbed Pacific Gear & Tool Works in San Francisco, which had been owned by P. L. Bannan until his death in 1944. After the war, Webster-Brinkley closed, and in 1954 its product line merged with Western Gear. Western Gear was now a single corporation. It continued to make gears and gear boxes for industrial customers, and continued to make steering engines and marine deck machinery for military and commercial ships.
In San Francisco, Western Gear reduction gear boxes were incorporated to power the drums that move 21,500 feet of underground mechanical cable to operate the city's cable car system. Gear boxes made by Western Gear also powered many of the unlimited hydroplanes that raced on Lake Washington in the 1950s, including the Slo-mo-shun boats. Western Gear experts stood by on race weekends to make emergency repairs if needed for a boat to stay in the race.
The Move to Everett
Construction of Interstate 5 through Seattle in the early 1960’s forced Western Gear to relocate from its property at 417 9th Avenue South. In 1960, the federal government auctioned off the 72-acre site of the Naval Industrial Shipyard of Everett (formerly Everett Pacific Shipyards) on the Everett waterfront, announcing on March 18 that a group of three companies -- Pacific Tow Boats and Scott Paper Company of Everett, and Western Gear Corporation -- won with a bid of $2.1 million. Each would occupy a portion of the site and buildings. Western Gear's move from Seattle began in 1961 and proceeded gradually to minimize disruptions to production. By November 1, 1961, about 100 employees were working in Everett. By May 18, 1962, the move to Everett was complete. The Western Gear "Seattle Works" would now be known as "Heavy Machinery Division."
One of the first products shipped from Everett, in November 1961, was the 94.5-foot diameter turntable gear drive for the Space Needle built for 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. A one-horsepower motor turned the revolving restaurant at one revolution per hour. During refurbishment in the 1980s a new 1.5-horsepower motor replaced the old motor and increased the turntable speed to one revolution every 40 minutes, allowing diners to enjoy the complete view in less time.
New Markets, New Products
In an interview in High Gear magazine in 1979, Western Gear vice president and division manager Ade Eitner (b. 1933) explained that the Seattle business of building deck machinery and steering engines for the marine industry was cyclical in nature, depending on shipbuilding activity. After the move to Everett, the company pursued new markets in petroleum exploration and production, in high-technology metals, and in one-time projects that would better use the engineering and manufacturing expertise of the division. During the 1960s, the company grew, employing up to 600 people at Heavy Machinery Division, working on projects such as these:
- A 350-ton yoke structure and precision rotating elements for optical telescopes with 158-inch and larger lenses and for radio telescopes. Installations include Palomar Mountain, Mount Hamilton, and the Goldstone Observatory in California; Kitt Peak in Arizona; the Haleakala Observatory on Maui, Hawaii; and in Santiago, Chile.
- The world’s largest doors, for the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They are 456 feet high and weigh 450 tons.
- Specialized vehicles for the U.S. military: BARC (Barge Amphibious Resupply Cargo) vehicles for the Army and TAC (Tactical Air Cargo Loaders) for the Air Force.
- Launch and recovery equipment for two catamaran U.S. Navy Submarine Rescue Ships, USS Pigeon ASR-21 and USS Ortolan ASR 22. The equipment included a bridge crane, hoist, and winches for handling and deploying undersea submarine crew rescue equipment and the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV).
- Automobile tire test machines for tire manufacturers and government testing labs and a similar brake dynamometer for testing Bendix 747 aircraft brakes. Both used electronically controlled hydraulic cylinders to hold the wheel under test against a large flywheel to simulate high-speed road operation.
- Hydrographic, coring, and towing winches and instrumentation for civilian and military oceanography ships.
- Undersea communication cable-laying equipment for commercial cable ships such as the CS Long Lines.
- Undersea cable-laying equipment for USNS Neptune T-ARC2 and similar military ships. The classified mission of laying and repairing cables for the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) of underwater microphones in the world’s oceans to track the movement of submarines and ships was declassified in 1991.
Taking More Work In-House
As machinery functions became too complicated for controls using only switches, relays, and valves, manufacturers adopted solid-state electronics. At first, Western Gear used outside companies to design and build the electronic controls for its machines, but later brought the work in-house. In the late 1960s, new products such as the Pipemaster Linear Pipe Tensioner (LPT) required more precise and reliable controls. The largest "triple" LPT-100 pipe-tensioner system safely maintained up to 300,000 pounds of tension on an undersea pipeline during its construction. The machine was built to operate continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks.
To ensure everything worked together, the design and manufacture of the controls were moved in-house. Working with their mechanical engineering counterparts, electrical engineers designed the control system, including printed circuit boards, equipment enclosures, and wiring. An in-house electronics shop did the manufacturing. Western Gear was now in the electronics business, too.
Through the 1970s control systems used logic and analog integrated circuits on printed circuit cards. By the early 1980s, Western Gear Advanced Billet Grinders for the steel industry required more advanced controls to remove defects and oxide scale from the surface of steel billets. The machine used a 36-inch grinding wheel powered by a 400-horsepower electric motor for billets weighing up to 13,000 pounds and 20 feet long. The control system precisely commanded the grinding wheel to follow the surface of the billet as it moved under the wheel at 300 feet per minute. This ensured the grinder removed only the defect or oxide and minimized wasteful excess steel removal. The system used a Texas Instruments microprocessor with Western Gear interface cards. Western Gear did the design, programming, and manufacturing.
The Hughes Glomar Explorer
On October 22, 1968, Western Gear made its first public stock offering; it no longer was a family-owned business. But by 1971, the U.S. economy was slowing, and nearby Boeing was going through large layoffs. Western Gear was laying off too. Meanwhile, the company negotiated with Global Marine Corporation of California for a large contract to design and build shipboard heavy lift machinery to raise 14 million pounds of material from the Pacific Ocean floor 17,000 feet below. The machinery would be installed on the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Nothing like this had ever been done before. Western Gear won the contract and people came back to work, some after only two weeks of layoff.
Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation was building the ship and a mechanical mining machine to harvest mineral-rich manganese nodules. The 619-foot-long Glomar Explorer would carry high-strength stainless-steel 60-foot pipe sections with threaded ends to join them together. The pipe string was suspended through a center opening in the hull of the ship, with the mining machine attached at the end. The Western Gear heavy lift system raised and lowered the pipe, joined the pipe sections together, and supported the weight of suspended pipe string and mining machine. A gimbal allowed swivel motion, and heave compensators worked as shock absorbers to prevent ship movement caused by waves from damaging the pipe string.
Western Gear designed and built all the machinery and electronic control system to do the job. Ten 6-foot-tall enclosures housed more than 2,000 printed circuit boards that controlled the operation of 48 hydraulic pumps and operation of the lift system. At the time this was the largest hydraulic system ever built.
Howard Hughes was the customer and required top-level secrecy. Global Marine engineers had offices on site at Western Gear in a building that had housed Civil Defense offices through the 1940s and 1950s. A secure conference room with boarded-over windows, sound proofing, and a secure dual-door entrance was prepared for project meetings. To support the mining story, Global Marine engineers handed out manganese nodules to Everett people working on the project.
In late 1972, Western Gear began shipping equipment from Everett to Sun Shipbuilding in Chester, Pennsylvania, where the Hughes Glomar Explorer was under construction. Western Gear engineers, technicians, and mechanics were on site to oversee the installation of their equipment. In July 1973, the completed ship left for Long Beach, California, where the ship was prepared for its mission. In July 1974, the ship reached a location about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii to perform the mining operation. Western Gear engineers were on-board and operating the heavy lift equipment.
On March 19, 1975, newspapers and news broadcasts around the world carried headline stories that the CIA and the Hughes Glomar Explorer secretly recovered a sunken Russian submarine from the ocean floor. Follow-up stories in the March 20, 1975, Everett Herald reported that Western Gear had built the ship’s heavy lift machinery. Eitner, Western Gear's vice president and division manager, confirmed to the media that Western Gear had built the equipment for the Glomar Explorer to do mineral exploration but had no comment on the other aspects of the operation.
The mining story was in fact a cover for a CIA Cold War covert operation. The undersea "mining machine" at the end of the pipe was actually a giant claw much like the small ones used to capture prizes at an arcade. It was used to pick up a submarine instead of manganese nodules. According to all accounts, part of the claw failed during recovery and much of the submarine fell away, leaving about a third of the sub for recovery. Most people did not realize that their neighbors around Snohomish County who worked at Western Gear had built the machinery to lift a Russian submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. The federal government disclosed the true nature of the classified mission in January 2010, when the CIA declassified and officially released a redacted version of a secret CIA document describing the mission in detail.
In 2006, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the Hughes Glomar Explorer with its Everett-built machinery as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, joining other engineering landmarks such as the Wright Flyer and the Hughes HK-1 Flying Boat "Spruce Goose."
Products Get More Complex
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Western Gear continued to design and build unique machinery for marine, petroleum, steel, and shipbuilding industries worldwide. During this period, Phil Bannan succeeded Ade Eitner as Vice President and Division Manager of Heavy Machinery Division upon Eitner's promotion to Group Vice President. More interesting projects included:
- Deep-ocean mining equipment to harvest manganese nodules from the ocean floor for Deepsea Ventures Inc, a scaled down version of the Glomar Explorer equipment. This time for real.
- Improved petroleum drilling and pumping equipment for land and sea exploration and production.
- Automated Panel Welding equipment for modularized shipbuilding. The equipment welded large steel panels together, edge to edge, and welded steel webs to the panels to fabricate large modules that joined to form ship hull sections.
- Cart and rail shipyard systems for General Dynamics Electric Boat Division in Connecticut and Newport News in Virginia for transporting and joining submarine modules during construction in shipyards.
- Moving into the renewable energy industry with the manufacture of Flow Wind vertical-axis wind turbines.
Sold and Shuttered
In 1982, Bucyrus Erie of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, bought Western Gear and its seven divisions, which would then operate under the name BECOR Western. Bucyrus Erie was an old and respected manufacturer of earth-moving and mining equipment going back to the steam shovels that helped build the Panama Canal. Initially, employees of Western Gear believed the change would be beneficial -- both companies built large, sophisticated machines for similar industries and environments so could learn from the experiences of the other. But in less than five years, Bucyrus Erie closed or sold all of the former Western Gear divisions. It was the end of an era for an Everett company that took risks and tackled projects that some thought impossible. On December 31, 1986, after 25 years in Everett, the company closed to make room for the construction of Naval Station Everett.
As of 2022, two former division managers of Western Gear Heavy Machinery Division from the 1970s and 1980s, Ade Eitner and Phil Bannan were living in Everett near family. Eitner returned after operating his own business in California. Bannan and family remained in Everett and started another Bannan family enterprise, Scuttlebutt Brewing and Pub on the Everett waterfront near the old Western Gear site.
Many former employees remained in the area, and for more than 35 years they have gathered annually for reunions organized by former employee Shirley Gray (b. 1937). She has voluntarily maintained an archive of Western Gear photos and documents, which provided some of the source for this essay. In a 1969 presentation to the Newcomen Society, then company chairman Tom Bannan said that making the company "a good place to work" was always a stated objective. This objective was met.