Bill Swern Sr. was a man of the soil. He spent the majority of his 96 years on a 200-acre farm in Parke County, one of the prettiest parts of Indiana.
But to acquire and keep his idyllic homestead, Swern spent 11 years working in Kokomo, first at D.C. Spraker’s tire factory and then at the helm of his own tire business.
What he did at the Spraker factory circa 1923 perhaps should have long been recorded as a part of the City of Firsts’ history of innovation, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, more than a decade after his death, that Swern’s own family learned of his Kokomo past.
This year, working with Swern’s family, Dave Broman, director of the Howard County Historical Society, is trying to correct what he sees as an omission from the roll of Kokomo inventors.
“The names of Haynes, Spraker, Kingston and Maxwell are legendary,” Broman wrote in an article for the historical society. “But is a name missing from the list? Does one more name deserve a place on the list of firsts?”
Swern patented what he called a “tire forming machine” in 1923, the same year he left his job as foreman at Spraker’s factory. The machine was basically a hydraulically expanding hub around which a tire could be formed.
Some said Swern got the idea from watching an umbrella open, but there was little doubt he wanted to make the job easier for the workers.
“Before Swern, tire building was a slow, labor-intensive process,” Broman wrote. “Tires were built one at a time … the materials and equipment were heavy, the workers exhausted, the plants filthy, and supply couldn’t keep up with demand.”
Swern’s machines, along with a system he devised for breaking the tire manufacturing process into steps, helped Spraker’s plant increase output and helped workers avoid the kind of “overwork” injuries to which they’d been susceptible.