By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — 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.
“Most of the men he knew were ruptured, and he had a hernia himself,” said Swern’s son, Bill Jr., a retired Purdue soil and water conservationist who still lives on the Parke County family farm. “It was hard work.”
For the next seven years, Swern tried to improve on his product, which eventually became known as the Swernbuild System, filing two more patents, traveling the country and selling his machines through the mail.
But success never came and after the crash of 1929, Swern sold one of his patents to the Goodyear company which zealously defended its manufacturing processes against competition through the patent process.
“According to the family history, [Goodyear] said it could reproduce his machine, but that it would be easier for all concerned if he would sell the rights,” Broman said. Knowing he couldn’t fight such a large, established company in court, Swern sold his patent.
“He never told me much about it. I think he was discouraged by what had happened,” Bill Jr. said. “He couldn’t compete with them. He couldn’t get the financing.”
The effort of trying to establish a company, sell his machines and keep the family solvent as the Great Depression deepened almost killed Swern, who by the early 1930s was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
“The fact he survived at all was a miracle. It was rest which cured him. My mother had the work of the farm. As soon as he’d try to be a little more active, he’d have a relapse,” said Swern’s daughter, Marianne Karpovich.
Whether it was faith, as Karpovich said, or the advent of streptomycin after World War II which cured Swern, he eventually recovered and went back to farming. The native of Newark, Ohio, lived to be a day short of 96 years old, passing away in 1983.
But it wasn’t until Bill Jr. returned to Kokomo in 1994 for the 100th anniversary of Elwood Haynes’ test drive down Pumpkinvine Pike that he started to dig into his father’s history.
Eventually, Bill Jr. compiled a scrapbook full of information on his inventor father with the intention of giving it to his niece and nephews. But as a big supporter of the Parke County Historical Society, he also knew there was historical significance to his research, which included records from the U.S. Patent Office.
Broman said even after Swern had sold his patents, there was recognition he’d contributed to modern automotive manufacturing.
The Swernbuild System was displayed at the Century of Progress exhibit, at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, as an example of the modern way to manufacture tires, Broman said.
Swern used the drive and initiative he’d shown in Kokomo to build up his farm after the Depression and his illness were past, and his family remembers him as a quiet man who enjoyed reading and who put a great deal of stock in education for his kids, both of whom graduated from college.
Marianne was 4 years old when the family left Kokomo, but she remembers her father when he was young.
“To me, he was a hero, big and strong with lovely, curly hair,” she remembered. “I think I got my concept of God from him. He was my father.”
Scott Smith is on Twitter @JasonSSmith1 and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org