My Father The Inventor
HE WAS ONE OF THE LAST of the truly successful independent inventors, a dreamer and visionary and dominating man who made a lasting mark in the down-to-earth world of the steel-rolling mill
”Sendzimir was a genius, a real character. The only problem was he had so many ideas. Ninetyfive percent of them weren’t any good. But the remaining five percent were so good that you forgot all the rest.” That’s how Tad Sendzimir is remembered by one steel-plant chief—and perhaps all of them, around the world, who own Sendzimir rolling mills.
Independent inventive geniuses are getting scarce. Creative young minds are swallowed up by corporate research laboratories, while lone inventors struggle in obscurity or fold for lack of capital or stamina. Last year was the centennial of the birth, in Poland, of one of the most important inventors in the history of steelmaking, a man who did not lose his independence, his stamina, or his creative gifts for the span of his ninety-five years. Tad Sendzimir was, in the spirit of Thomas Edison, one of the great independent inventor-entrepreneurs. His impact on the steel industry—and on our daily lives—was vast. His impact on my daily life was particularly vast: He was my father.
Long before I appeared, however, he had made his name as one of the top five inventors in the history of steel. He transformed the industry in the early 1930s with two big advances: a dramatically improved way to galvanize steel and a new type of cold rolling mill that could turn out strip half the thickness of a human hair. His rolling mills made airborne radar possible in World War II and produced the material that formed the outer shell of the Apollo spacecraft. Today more than 90 percent of the world’s stainless steel is rolled on his mills. He received every top international award in steel, including the engineering equivalent of the Nobel Prize: the Brinell Gold Medal, from the Royal Academy of Technical Sciences in Stockholm.
I knew hardly any of this when I began working on my father’s biography in 1986. In August 1987, when I visited the Huta Lenina steel plant in Krakow, Poland, I saw for the first time the glittering ribbon of zinc-coated steel emerging from a Sendzimir galvanizing line. Why, I began to wonder, was I seeing these fascinating machines only now, in my mid-thirties? Why had my father never shown me this stuff?
I was not raised in a steel mill, or even in a steel town. In the city where we lived, Waterbury, Connecticut, brass had been king. My father’s office walls were cluttered with photos of him receiving medals from the King of Sweden and presidents of scientific societies, but all I’d known as a child was that he packed up his briefcase in the morning and came home in the evening for supper. He never puttered with machines in our garage, though his office shelves always contained two or three intriguing gizmos —which we weren’t allowed to touch- ordered from Popular Mechanics .
He was away much of the time on business. I would go with my mother on the long car trip to Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) airport in New York to pick him up. I’d lean excitedly against the glass of the balcony high above the U.S. Customs counters, trying to spot him among the scores of weary men in gray suits and felt hats coming back from Europe and Japan. I remember the love I felt in his twinkling eyes and warm smile under the scratchy mustache when he bent down to embrace me. But I also remember my disappointment that the relative calm and freedom of our days out from under his domineering presence were ending. (I was to learn much later that his employees felt exactly the same.)
My early experience with real inventing was confined to his automatic pancake machine, a contraption that sputtered to life in the garage under the care of his handyman. It made pancakes on a heated drum, in long, thin strips instead of disks. (No one ever figured out how to cook the other side.) It was nothing to win awards, or even draw inquiries, but a four-year-old knows pancakes. She does not know rolled steel, even if she might slide down it all afternoon at the playground. Once in a while my father would pick up a stainless-steel knife in a restaurant, turn it over to examine the trademark, and say to me and my brothers, “This was rolled on your daddy’s mill.” We’d sit and watch, in those restaurants, as he scribbled circles and coils on paper place mats, lost in thought, using the fat, multicolored ballpoint pens my mother would find for him. That’s as close as we got to seeing my father’s world-renowned genius.
I was astonished to learn, when I was older, that his first job had been as an auto mechanic, because when he had a problem with one of his cars, it was always sent straight to the garage. I never saw him fix a broken lawn mower or a leaky faucet. His intimate feel for machinery was entirely cerebral; he claimed (with utter self-delusion, I later learned) to have constructed his inventions down to the smallest couplings entirely in his imagination before explaining them to his draftsmen—as if he were a Mozart, with his head full of completely orchestrated, yetto-be-written symphonies.
As my brothers and I, with our mother, collected shells in front of our winter home in Florida, my father was off alone down the beach, scurrying beside the water’s edge like a skinny, upright crab. He was hard at work, in solitude, calculating and reasoning out machinery in his head. And he didn’t want company.
With adolescence my distance from him grew, both physically (I went off to boarding school) and emotionally. I was a child of the sixties; he was, as he liked to say, “a product of the nineteenth century.” Our relationship was stormy, due in considerable part to the traits I’d received from him undiluted: stubbornness and a thirst for independence. I loved and hated him, admired and resented him. In my most bitter moments I would explain to my friends that “my father’s real children are his inventions. My brothers and I are just his biological children.”
But time and physical distance eventually did their work. He began to loosen up as he went into his eighth decade; he became less tyrannical, more joking and relaxed, more willing to listen and to compromise. The scribblings on place mats now were more likely to be puns than patent drawings; “Oliver North’s greatest asset is his LIE-ability” was a favorite in 1988. And I began to look on his eccentricities with more fondness than annoyance.
In 1983 the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy in Krakow held a celebration commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Sendzimir galvanizing process and the first Sendzimir rolling mill. The whole family went to Poland for the occasion. At the accompanying symposium, and over the next few days of parties in Krakow , I began to see and appreciate, for the first time, the deep respect in which my father was held. My perception of him began to open, click by click, like the aperture of a rusty wide-angle lens. What I saw moved me, a few years later, to write his story. It was there, in southern Poland, that the story began.
TADEUSZ SENDZIMIR WAS BORN in 1894 in the city of Lwów, in the eastern section of Poland that is now part of Ukraine. His appreciation for things mechanical showed up early. As a small boy Sendzimir collected machineparts catalogues, and his sisters would find him studying them in the privacy of the bathroom. After school he hung around a machine shop, where he learned to use the lathes, presses, and grinders and came to love the sharp, cold smell of iron filings and lubricating oil. At the age of thirteen he built his own camera. In high school an uncle who was a well-known chemistry professor at Lwów University noticed his young nephew’s scientific thirst. He invited him to come to his laboratory every day after school to experiment with the gases, flasks, burners, and beakers.
These extracurricular pursuits became curricular when Sendzimir entered Lwow Polytechnic and began working toward his mechanical engineering degree. He expected to go on to Vienna for a doctorate, then maybe to America. World War I foiled these plans. He was twenty years old, a couple of semesters short of the degree, when war broke out. That’s when his education as an inventor truly began.
He got a job as a manager in an automobile repair shop in Lwów, even though he’d never been behind the wheel of a car. He gave orders to the mechanics, then watched over their shoulders as they went about their work. In this way he gradually learned how the parts were repaired. Here was a singular aspect of his training as an inventor: During the war spare parts were nowhere to be found. Everything that was broken had to be fixed or fashioned from scratch. By the end of the war he could rebuild anything on wheels.
In 1915, to avoid the draft, he ran away to Kiev, Ukraine, where he found a similar job. Then, in 1918, when the Russian Revolution threw Kiev into anarchy, he fled across Siberia—the first few days riding on top of a railroad car because there was no room inside—and landed in Shanghai, a city open to all comers, regardless of their papers or lack of them.
In Shanghai, at the age of twentyfour, Sendzimir opened China’s first mechanized nail and screw factory. Because the war was still in progress, he couldn’t get the fancy machinery he needed from Germany and Belgium; in any case, he couldn’t afford it. Instead he jury-rigged his nail- and screwmaking machines from old drill presses. He spent his spare time walking along Shanghai’s canals and riverfronts and visiting machine shops and scrapiron dealers. He’d bargain in pidgin English with the shop’s assistant while the owner snoozed peacefully in the back clutching an opium pipe. Sendzimir’s business grew, slowly, because he was able to innovate and solve mechanical problems on the spot, contriving unusual solutions in that damp, remote environment where you couldn’t simply call your parts supplier to bail you out.
The business was moderately successful, and in the postwar years Sendzimir decided to diversify. He found out that Belgian factories were making nails out of scrap wire and saving their good wire for fences. So he began making wire fences too, figuring that the resourceful Belgians were worth imitating.
Fences, like many steel products, are usually made from steel that has been galvanized, or coated with zinc. (The name for the process comes from an early misapprehension that electricity had to be involved.) If it’s done right, the zinc will bond chemically with the steel in a thin but tough layer. Such a zinc coating protects the underlying steel in two ways: by shielding it and by drawing corrosion away from the steel and upon itself in case there’s a hole or crack.
Sendzimir set up his new factory for the hot, foulsmelling, time-consuming process of coating wire with zinc. It didn’t take him long to decide that there had to be a better way. At that time all galvanizing, whether in the modern factories of Europe or in the antiquated shops of Shanghai, was done in small batches by hand, usually by dipping. First the steel was pickled in acid, to remove scale, oxides, and corrosion; then it was rinsed with water and placed in a flux bath of zinc ammonium chloride to further remove oxides. After that it was carefully dipped by hand into molten zinc at around 850 degrees Fahrenheit and set to dry on a spike-studded cylindrical rack known as a porcupine.
BESIDES BEING HELLISH FOR THE workers, the process was hard to control and only moderately effective. All galvanized products of the day would begin to oxidize—to rust—at the first bump or scratch, when their silvery skin would flake away and leave an open wound. Sendzimir saw the problem: The zinc was bonding not with pure iron but with a thin layer of iron hydroxide on the surface, produced by air and humidity. The key problem was finding a way to keep the iron’s surface pure. Sendzimir began conducting experiments at his shop in Shanghai in the mid-1920s, and after a while he felt he was onto something.
At the end of 1929, after eleven years in Shanghai, Sendzimir abandoned his factory after losing a power struggle with a recently hired manager. He headed for the United States in hopes of finding an investor to sponsor his new idea and arrived in New York at an inauspicious time: three months after the stock market crash. Investors were committing suicide, but he did manage to find someone to fund his continuing investigations—a businessman named Fred Wonham, who had dealt with some of Sendzimir’s Shanghai associates—and spent the rest of 1930 doing research at the New York Public Library. Irving Langmuir’s work on the interaction of gases with metal surfaces was a subject of particular interest. While perfecting the tungsten-filament light bulb at General Electric before World War I, Langmuir had found that hydrogen gas could be used to remove oxide from the metal’s surface. Sendzimir realized from this work that a hydrogen atmosphere could be the key to his galvanizing process.
Sendzimir’s studies confirmed the validity of his initial, revolutionary idea: He would send the cleaned steel through a sealed box, where no oxygen could get in, and not in individual sheets but in the form of a continuous strip. In the box a reducing atmosphere of hydrogen gas would suck off the oxygen from the iron oxide on the steel’s surface, leaving pure steel. Then the strip would cool partially and pass down a long enclosed chute to be dipped in the molten zinc bath. From the bath the strip would be pulled up four stories high; the zinc would crystallize before it reached the pulley on top. When finally in operation, Sendzimir’s process proved to be faster, cleaner, and cheaper than the old way, and it made a far superior galvanized sheet. The steel could be bent, tacked onto roofs, or formed into buckets or mailboxes or manure spreaders, and the zinc stayed on it like fleas on a dog.
SENDZIMIR RETURNED to Poland in 1931. There he at last found a backer to put his idea into practice. Zygmunt Inwald ran a factory producing zinc white (zinc oxide) for paint, and he wanted to branch out into galvanizing roofing sheets. He enthusiastically embraced Sendzimir’s new and still unproven process, and they set out to build the line in his factory in the small town of Kostuchna, near Katowice in southern Poland. The line was constructed without much difficulty once the problems of making the furnace absolutely airtight had been solved. The line was then ready for action.
They still had a problem, however. Galvanizing had always been done on large individual sheets of steel. To compete in the roofing business, Inwald and Sendzimir couldn’t use such sheets; they needed long strip in coils of thin gauge and wide width. Such strip didn’t exist. No one in Europe made steel in coils to the fine one-third-millimeter gauge Sendzimir needed. So he decided—as he’d done in Kiev and Shanghai—to make it himself. And so began his second great innovation, the Sendzimir cold-rolling mill.
After hot steel slabs are rolled into heavy-gauge coils, the steel can be further rolled at room temperature into strip of very thin gauge. This is called cold rolling, though the process itself can heat the steel to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold rolling makes the steel stronger and harder and gives it a smooth, lustrous finish. But with that increased hardness comes a decrease in ductility, the metal’s ability to be shaped into a final product or rolled still thinner. Most cold-rolled strip has to be annealed—heated very slowly in an enclosed box—to soften it after every few passes on old-style cold-rolling mills.
Cold rolling became an increasingly important part of the steel industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Its rise was induced by, and contributed to, a boom in the automobile and appliance industries, which needed strong, good-looking sheet steel ductile enough to be stamped into auto bodies, refrigerators, toasters, and washing machines. Cold rolling was originally done the same way as hot rolling, on a twohigh mill—that is, by simply passing the steel between two large rolls. It was soon discovered that small-diameter rolls are much more efficient at biting into the sheet than large ones, the way a sharp knife cuts better than a dull one. Small rolls, however, will bend easily and so must be backed up by heavier rolls. Thus the four-high mill came about: two small work rolls sandwiched between two larger ones. (The power can be applied through either pair of rolls.)
In the early part of this century, cold rolling was done by handfeeding steel, sheet by sheet, back and forth through the mill. For Sendzimir this wouldn’t do. He needed the steel thinner, and he needed it in continuous strip form. Taking off from a mill design by the German engineer Wilhelm Rohn, Sendzimir came up with the idea for his cluster mill. In this scheme each work roll would be backed up by two heavier rolls side by side. These in turn would be surmounted by very heavy roller bearings along their entire length, spreading the load evenly, instead of putting it all on a single pair of bearings at either end. All this would be held rigid in a one-piece cast-iron housing, to further reduce bending of the rolls, and finally the strip would be held taut and rolled under tension. These were the germs of the idea for the first Sendzimir cold-rolling mill.
In 1933, after several years of development (despite what he’d have everyone believe, Sendzimir’s inventions, like all inventions, refused to spring from his head fully formed and flawless), his first mill began to do its remarkable work in Katowice. It reduced three-millimeter strip down to a third of a millimeter in twelve passes. The mill was so strong that the coil never had to be taken off for annealing in between passes.
After rolling, the coils were shipped to the galvanizing line, which soon produced a smooth, wide strip, glittering with the icy spangle of zinc. Word spread quickly as the strip started appearing on rooftops across Poland. The Polish president, Ignacy Moscicki, came down from Warsaw to visit the line. He had been a professor of physical chemistry at Lw’f6w before taking office, and he knew the mess and smell of galvanizing the old way. “This isn’t a zinc factory,” he exclaimed when he saw Sendzimir’s operation, “it’s a sanitorium!”
ARMCO STEEL (FORMEREY THE American Rolling Mill Company), in Middletown, Ohio, specialized in coated steel. Company executives heard about Sendzimir’s line through their Paris office and brought him over to the United States for talks. Sendzimir signed a deal with Armco in 1935. It bought his galvanizing invention and gave him help in further developing his cold-rolling mill. Armco went on to perfect the galvanizing method and build lines around the world. Sendzimir had little more to do with galvanizing; he wanted to concentrate on his cold mill instead.
In the 1990s a modern galvanizing line bears as much resemblance to the simple steel furnace box Sendzimir built in Poland as a Harley-Davidson does to a bicycle, but at its core you will find the same physical and chemical process. Sendzimir’s contribution is known and respected in the industry; still, in textbooks you can read about the Sendzimir mill but never about the Sendzimir galvanizing method. No one thought to call it sendzimirizing. One reason is that Sendzimir just liked playing with mills and machines better, and that’s what he spent the rest of his life on. (On the other hand, his obituary in The New York Times mentioned only his galvanizing process.)
Sendzimir built a few more coldrolling mills in Europe before the Second World War. In the United States the Z mill, as his design came to be known, got its start in Chicago, at Signode Steel. Sendzimir was in the United States in September 1939, working on that mill, when war broke out after Germany invaded his native Poland. He settled in Middletown for the duration, eventually becoming an American citizen in 1946. During this time he also courted and married my mother, an Armco secretary from Paris.
The Signode mill was designed to roll low-carbon steel, to be slit into narrow bands for strapping. But the exigencies of wartime soon gave it a new assignment. In the early 1940s MIT’s Radiation Laboratory needed silicon steel rolled down to .002 inch for the pulse transformers it was developing for lightweight radar. Silicon steel is a very brittle alloy that is hard to roll. MIT came to Armco looking for a mill that could handle it. Armco said no such mill existed—but since you’re in town, why not go talk to Sendzimir? And of course Sendzimir said to the man from MIT, “ I can make strip that’s twothousandths of an inch thick. If you want, I’ll even make it one -thousandth of an inch.” And eventually the little mill at Signode did just that.
IN ADAPTING HIS DESIGN TO SIL icon steel, Sendzimir came up with another pair of important improvements. First, he decided to apply power to the system through the intermediate rolls instead of the work rolls. This change made it much easier to remove the work rolls when they needed to be changed. Second, he added a fourth layer of rolls, making the configuration 1-2-3-4. The work rolls were now backed up by two sets of intermediate rolls, with the outermost set serving as bearings. Since the work rolls were no longer directly powered and had been reinforced with extra backup, they could be built even smaller, which made them that much more effective.
When that fine-gauge silicon steel began pouring out of the mill in 1944, the MIT Rad Lab was able to vastly decrease the size of its radar devices and so make them light enough to mount on American warplanes. The Z mill was starting to raise eyebrows in the industry. The name Sendzimir was becoming as hard to ignore as it was to pronounce.
The mill really took off when it began to roll stainless steel, a tough, versatile metal that would undergo a boom after the war. That boom was in no small part made possible by Sendzimir, for his mill was the only one that could roll stainless to the microthin gauges then coming into demand. Shortly after the war Tecumseh Sherman (“Tom”) Fitch, an industrialist (and grandson of the famed Civil War general), founded a new company in Washington, Pennsylvania, for the sole purpose of rolling stainless steel on a Sendzimir mill. In a few years big steel companies were bringing their stainless to Washington and asking the little firm to roll it for them.
The Z mill, much improved since the first model in Poland, was, according to Nicholas Grant, a professor emeritus at MIT, “a couple of orders of magnitude more sophisticated” than its nearest competitor. Two- and four-high mills couldn’t produce such thin gauge at such low cost or with such accuracy and uniformity. NASA needed that kind of accuracy for the Apollo spacecraft; the skin of the nose cone on the early missions was rolled on a Z mill.
Over the next two decades Sendzimir and his engineers went on making improvements. They made the mills bigger, wider, and more powerful and found ways around such problems as scalloping, a wavy pattern on the edges of a strip that results from over-rolling. There were, of course, always difficulties along the way, for the Z mill is quite complicated. The men who run Z mills say, “Treat her nice; she’s like a Swiss watch”—precise, beautiful, intricate, and demanding, none of which can be said about four-high mills, whose operators doctor them with a squirt of grease and a sledgehammer.
Some Z mills became tiny. Toastersize models, sitting on tables in dustfree labs, roll zirconium foil down to .0008 inch. The foil is shipped in tiny clear plastic boxes, half the size of a box of straight pins. Other Z mills became gigantic, two stories high, rolling stainless-steel panels five feet wide for the sleek exteriors of high-speed trains.
THE BULK OF THE STEEL STRIP coming forth by the ton from Z mills is used for the prosaic needs of the industrial world: cabinets, hubcaps, kitchen sinks, subway-car railings. But Z mills also spew out the stuff of scalpels and hypodermic needles, and they helped fashion early computer memory cells. A plant in Tennessee rolled uranium on a Z mill. The Pentagon commissioned 350 tons of .001-inch stainless steel for the sandwiched layers of the skin of the Mach 3 B-70 bomber. Foil mills rolled an alloy for flight recorders; the metal was thin enough to have data stamped on it and strong and heatresistant enough to survive a crash.
In 1945 Sendzimir moved his company, Armzen (a joint venture with Armco, hence the name), to Waterbury, Connecticut, the home of Waterbury Parrel Foundry, the firm that built the Z mills he designed. He sold Armzen in 1956, when the initial patents expired, and started a new firm, T. Sendzimir Incorporated, to develop the Z mill and expand sales worldwide. During those years, when my brothers and I were young, we saw very little of our father. Both companies (first Armzen, then T. Sendzimir Inc.) did well because of the unique and superior quality of the mills they sold. But his firms’ successes were due as much to the man as to the mills. Sendzimir was a warm, engaging raconteur, fluent in five languages, a man of quick wit and old-world charm, peddling high-tech ideas in a thick Slavic accent. He talked rings around most of his customers, who viewed him with immense respect and genuine fondness. He was, in the words of more than a few, a Renaissance man.
THERE WERE PROBLEMS ALONG the way, the foremost of which was his tendency to oversell his mills. He would make promises that the machines, especially his newer ones, were sometimes unable to keep. His zeal became one bone of contention between him and his more cautious and pragmatic son Michael (the only child of an earlier marriage, born in 1924), whom he had made president of T. Sendzimir Inc. Sendzimir had put Michael in charge so that he could devote his full energy to inventing. Unfortunately, while he passed the title and the responsibility on to Michael, for many years he kept hold of the reins himself.
During the 1960s Z mills spread like tumbleweeds across the globe. If you wanted to roll thin-gauge metal, especially stainless steel—and everyone from Liverpool to Lusaka did—you had to talk to Sendzimir. The mills were particularly popular in Japan, which was basing its industrial boom on the newest and most efficient technology the West could offer, technology that the U.S. steel industry was dragging its feet about. And so Japan leaped ahead.
In the late 1950s Sendzimir had turned his attention to his most revolutionary and problematic invention: the Planetary hot-rolling mill. He had been thinking about hot rolling since the 1930s. Then (as today, by and large) hot slabs of steel were rolled into thin coils by passing them through a series of twohigh and four-high mills in a line several hundred feet long. Each mill makes a substantial reduction, and the hot slab gets thinner and longer and thinner and longer, like so much taffy, until finally it emerges as strip to be wound up in a coil.
Sendzimir came up with the Planetary mill instead. Its core is two large rolls, each surrounded by much smaller work rolls that spin as they rotate around their large backing roll. Each of the work rolls, as it passes over or under the slab, takes a bite, a small reduction. As the metal meets the rolls, it goes from a slab three inches thick to strip one-eighth of an inch thick in a matter of seconds. It’s as if Sendzimir had taken the small work rolls of a hundred-yard-long rolling mill, through which the slab would have slowly passed and been reduced millimeter by millimeter, and put all those work rolls in a circle around two large backing rolls, so that it happened all at once.
It sounded like a nice idea until you tried to run one. The noise was infernal, the complications endless. For example, every Planetary mill had 104 bearings, each one looking for its chance to seize up and stop the mill cold. Sendzimir was asking thousands of moving parts to work in precise harmony, to do a hot, dirty, pounding job better left to the burly and simpleminded brutes of the steel industry, those conventional hot mills. While some Planetary mills produced superiorquality steel and made good profits for their owners (especially, no surprise, in Japan), the rest of the industry was scared off.
NONETHELESS THE PLAN etary mill never lost its place as the favored child on its daddy’s knee. It did work, in theory. And that theory was so beautiful. How could you not love a mill that cost a fraction of what its competitors did and gave you an even better product? Sendzimir did not have to climb up and replace those seized bearings himself. For him, if something worked in theory, it must work in practice.
That philosophy was one of the defining characteristics of his fecund mind. “It’s hard to argue with a visionary,” as one of his engineers said. It’s also hard to argue with success. Sendzimir’s galvanizing process and Z mill came at a time when both these inventions were technically possible and in great demand. The multifarious other visions that passed through his brain and became sketches, models, patents, or finished products sometimes lacked one or another of these elements- supporting technology and customer demand.
But some who knew him insist that Sendzimir’s strength lay in his unpatentable concepts. Jacek Gajda, an engineer who worked with Sendzimir in the 1970s and 1980s, remembers: “Sometimes I would sit back and listen to his ideas. They came from a totally unconventional way of thinking. He would come up with a way of doing something which had nothing to do with the way anyone else had ever done it. He had so many little ideas on accomplishing things no one else could figure out.” Some patents were granted because the patent examiner would challenge the idea with a standard line of reasoning and Sendzimir would counter with an argument out of left field. The examiner wouldn’t know what to say. (In an early example of finessing the Patent Office, Sendzimir inserted an unnecessary step—coating the steel with oxide before it passes through the hydrogen chamber—in his galvanizing process, to distinguish it from a similar patent from decades before that had gone undeveloped.)
SENDZIMIR DID NOT LIMIT HIS thoughts to the steel industry, either for inspiration or for application. His ideas ranged from the whimsical, like his pancake maker, to the inspired, like a design for refrigerator panels that he came up with in two hours and later sold to Reynolds Aluminum for $75,000. A page from Sendzimir’s notebooks, dated 1930, describes a pneumatic system for ignition, shifting, and power steering on cars. In the 1960s he thought of directing a layer of air bubbles around the hulls of ships to reduce friction in the water. He even came up with a sketch for a toothpick mounted on the end of the tongue to get at those hardto-reach places.
He would often return to ideas he had worked on years before, trying to improve his successes and resuscitate ideas that he had not fully developed. Certain elements turned up over and over in his inventions as well: differentials, sprockets and chains, eccentric gears. And while real-world concerns could inspire him, he might spend months on some delicious idea without a thought to its usefulness. He said to his engineers, “First I’ll invent something; then I’ll find an application for it.”
He did his inventing mostly in his head, always away from his office, where the tribulations of running a business and working with his engineers (none of whom, he swore, were as competent or intelligent as he) distracted him. He worked—that is, invented—on the beach instead. As he took long, solitary walks across the dunes of Cape Cod or by the Atlantic in south Florida, where he’d built our winter home, the details of his inventions were ground out as the grains of sand were ground beneath his determined feet.
“Father was an artist,” says his son Michael. “His concept was to achieve something of beauty, what they call an elegant construction. He loved, for example, the little Citroen. The fact that you had a pool of oil underneath it every time you parked—totally beside the point. He liked its construction. Other people would design for pragmatics. His objective was to sculpt something beautiful in steel.” As Gajda explains: “He was looking mainly from the theoretical standpoint: ‘If I turn this, it should turn.’ But the world is not perfect. You can’t assume the mill operator is a graduate engineer. Many of his machines were too flimsy. Overdesigned in some areas, too complicated. In just plain rigidity and toughness, for steel mills, it wasn’t there.”
IT WASN’T THERE BECAUSE SEND zimir’s flaws as an inventor offset his brilliance. These flaws came up in stark relief in the 1970s and 1980s, when he no longer had a strong chief engineer to keep him focused and productive. His singular vision was often scuttled by his bent toward the impracticable, the impossible to put into production. His strong willpower, which saw groundbreaking concepts through to success, was undermined by his inability to listen to the men who had to put those concepts on line. His vast self-confidence fooled him into thinking that tests and calculations were superfluous.
“Certain things are by inductive reasoning,” he once boasted to me. “I can design it, build it, set in operation, guarantee it, without having any previous experience.” His superb business savvy, which brought him financial success, was hindered by his stinginess with materials and salaries. The models for his later developments were put together with dime-store motors and junkyard parts, and so were often too flimsy to prove the value of the underlying ideas. He refused to pay top engineers, so he was left with less qualified men to transform dime-store material into Tiffany-quality machines.
Sendzimir’s greatest strength was his overweening self-confidence. It was also his greatest weakness. He simply couldn’t admit—even to himself—that an idea was wrong. In his early years this persistence paid off; later it became counterproductive. It cost him money, time, and, in the last decades of his life, his reputation. For in those decades, the 1970s and 1980s, the steel industry collapsed, and the accountants who came to power were not as willing as their predecessors to spend money on untested, half-baked mechanisms, no matter how illustrious the name of the inventor.
This discouraged Sendzimir, but it did not put him out of business. He continued developing improvements of and variations on the Z mill and the Planetary mill and on a new kind of strip accumulator, the Spiral Looper, which had some success in Japan. He was disappointed by the lack of interest shown in his later work, but he was before all else an inventor. He had the financial cushion to keep his research company open and puttering along to his very last days, and that made him happy. He just kept on inventing.
AT THE AGE OF NINETY HE turned back to China. In 1984 a steel company in Lanzhou, in the western province of Gansu, approached Sendzimir, looking for a Planetary mill. He was delighted to oblige. He was also delighted to return to the land and people he had left half a century before but never lost respect for. He signed a joint-venture agreement in 1985 with the Lanzhou Steel Company and began working with it on refurbishing a used Planetary mill. It came from Germany, packed in crates and shipped across two oceans and up the Yellow River.
After his 1985 trip to China and a 1987 homecoming trip to Lwów, Sendzimir never left his home in Florida. He kept working at his cluttered desk overlooking the ocean, directing the employees at his company in Connecticut by telephone and Telecopier, swimming every day, and walking on the beach for inspiration.
In those last couple of years I took up the task of writing his biography. I would fly down to Florida and sit with him, tape recorder and rough sketches of mills spread across the dining-room table, and begin to fathom his life and achievements. He remembered his boyhood quite well, and he described in loving detail the screw-making machines he had improvised in Shanghai in the 1920s. All this was new to me because he had never been much of a storyteller about his personal life. The details of the inventions were new too, possibly because when we were children, our father-inventor had been so removed that neither I nor my brothers had ever shown a glimmer of interest in engineering. Though he was partly responsible for this, he was nonetheless disappointed, and now, in his nineties, he was thrilled that at last one of us was finding out why he had won all those awards.
We never finished those conversations. Seven weeks after his ninety-fifth birthday, on September 1, 1989, my father suffered a fatal heart attack on his way down to the beach.
Half a year later, in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, the Solidarity-led workers’ council at the Huta Lenina steel plant outside Krakow- the plant where I’d first seen the galvanizing line in 1987—decided to replace Lenin’s name with that of Poland’s most famous inventor in steel. The huge stainless-steel sign at the gates now reads HUTA IM T. SENDZIMIRA .