Wednesday, April 24, 2019

William C. Geer, North Country Inventor, Had A Ball

Whether you’re a fan of golf or sports in general, you’re probably aware that Tiger Woods recently won the Masters. His impact on golf history has been tremendous, but the latest chapter in his saga has been inspirational for several reasons: through lengthy, rigorous effort, he overcame physical obstacles that would have ended most sports careers; as an old man, he defeated all the best young players on the planet (he’s only 43, but athletes in their forties seldom win the biggest events); and overall, it was a rare comeback effort that most experts dismissed as impossible because of the factors just cited — and we do love comeback stories.

But this isn’t about Tiger Woods and it isn’t a comeback story. It’s about a remarkable North Country man who affected in a positive way untold millions of people around the world through his inventions, including one of his lesser creations — a new and improved golf ball that was the industry standard for decades.

First, a brief outline of his life. William Chauncey Geer was born in June 1876 in Ogdensburg, St. Lawrence County, where his father, Charles, was a popular and well-known agent of “the American and United States and Canada Express companies,” according to the city’s Daily Journal. He built a large, comfortable home and employed two domestics, reflecting a successful business life, but for reasons uncertain — speculation blamed it on financial troubles due to failed mining investments — Charles took his own life in July 1882. His wife, Lucy, decided their four children would be best educated in the State Normal School at Potsdam, so the Ogdensburg house was sold to settle Charles’s debts. By the following spring, with the help of an insurance-policy payout, the family pulled up stakes and settled in at Potsdam.

Young Billie’s childhood was average: he became excellent at shooting a gun, joined groups in church and at school, and held various jobs, including one summer each selling newspapers, hiring on at a drug store, and working for the post office. Lucy’s emphasis on morals, responsibility, and a strong work ethic were key in guiding the children to success in school.

Under Professor Warren Mann, Billie’s growing interest in chemistry sometimes led to unintended consequences. Years later, the Potsdam Herald-Recorder reported on class reunions where references were made to his past hi-jinks. At one event, Geer was “introduced by Mr. Mann as famous in school days for his hot-air balloons and devilish ink eradicators.” A year later, the paper mentioned that “he lived in Potsdam, and tried to set fire to the Normal School by his zeal and earnestness in the performance of chemistry problems.”

After graduating from Potsdam in 1897, he followed in big-brother Herbert’s footsteps and attended Cornell. Herb, seven years older, was a great success at Johns Hopkins as professor of electrical and mechanical engineering. William, the youngest in the family, was joined in Ithaca by his mother, who lived with him there. After his freshman year, she moved with him to Nyack (on the Hudson River, about a dozen miles north of New York City) when he accepted a job teaching high-school science. He resigned a year later and they returned to Cornell, where he resumed what became a stellar school career. He was an assistant in the Mineralogy Department (as a junior); was a leader of the debate club; completed his degree requirements ahead of schedule in both chemistry and physics; was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry (a 25-page article titled “Thermostats and Thermo Regulators”), and early in his senior year was awarded a full assistantship in the Chemistry Department.

A year later (1903), he achieved Fellow status in chemistry in recognition of high accomplishments in the field. He also taught at Cornell, earned his PhD in 1905, worked as a wood-distillation expert for the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and in 1907 was hired as chief chemist by B. F. Goodrich of Akron, Ohio. The following year, he married Effie Work, whose older brother, Bertram, was the Goodrich company president. In 1913 he was named manager of the Development Department and led research efforts, especially in the properties of rubber, working on projects for both the company and the federal government. In 1920 he became vice-president in charge of research, and retired from the company in 1925, at which point he moved to Ithaca, built a home, set up a laboratory nearby, and continued working on research, much of it for B. F. Goodrich. He was, after all, just 49 years old and one of the premier experts on working with rubber.

While some of his inventions had massive effects on businesses and industries worldwide, the focus here is on two of his lesser-known inventions, one of which failed to gain mainstream acceptance and died at the patent level. The application, filed in 1917, went right to the point: “Be it known that I, William C. Geer … have invented a certain new and useful improvement in Writing Implements or Devices, of which the following is a specification. My present invention pertains to an improved writing implement or device, and is designed to take the place of the implements or devices now commonly in use, such as pens (both ordinary and fountain), pencils, crayons, and the like.” A summarized description followed: “A writing implement, consisting of a body composed of a mixture of carnauba wax and finely-ground pumice-stone, the body having a series of small cells distributed throughout the same, said cells being filled with writing fluid.”

An invention’s success hinges on many factors, including need for the product and quality of the competition. While Geer’s new writing implement may have worked perfectly, who needed it? And more specifically, we know who didn’t need it: the powerful mix of companies that already supplied the nation with countless millions of pens, pencils, and crayons. His creation was publicized in newspapers and in monthlies like Popular Science, but beyond that, it attracted little attention.

The same can’t be said of his work on the golf ball, which was very successful. In February 1924, he filed a patent improving on the ball currently in use. The opening paragraph defined Geer’s goals: “The chief objects of my invention are to produce a golf ball having improved union of the cover material with the wound structure, and to provide a simple and effective method for making the same, whereby I obtain a superior ball capable of  longer flight and having increased durability. A further object is to provide a golf ball having a tough outer layer of covering material adapted to withstand rough usage….”

Many tweaks and improvements followed, but the biggest impact by far of his golf-related patents won approval in the 1930s. Both Dr. Geer (working for B. F. Goodrich) and Sidney Cadwell (working for U. S. Rubber) independently developed a process that toughened the covers of golf balls. James Healey, a St. Louis golf historian, says, “Some of the balls of this era had the words ‘Cadwell Cover’ or ‘Geer Patent Cover’ stamped on them, while others used the ‘Cadwell-Geer Cover’ name. This became the standard cover used on balls until the 1960s, when Surlyn was first used.”

On the Titleist website, historic research and story comments concur. “In the mid 1930s, there was a great deal of development going on regarding ball and cover construction. Hundreds of patents were filed at the time, but two in particular are relevant here. There was the Geer Patent Cover and the Cadwell Patent Cover. These two patents were so similar that there was a lawsuit in either 1937 or 1939 … that resulted in the two patents being combined. The earliest Titleist balls had the Geer Patent Cover. Titleist balls made after the patents were combined had the Cadwell-Geer Cover.”

And so it was that, for more than two decades, many top golfers used balls bearing the Geer imprint, including female superstar Babe Didrikson and two male luminaries, Sam Snead and Walter Hagen, who had signature golf balls that bore their names along with Geer and Cadwell. The new ball, carried by Wilson, Titleist, and Spaulding, the sport’s biggest suppliers, endured as a standard for more than two decades, when technological advances with new materials led to new covers. In 1961, a patent approved for “Methods of Covering Golf Balls” noted that, “The method of the Geer patent has been widely used in the manufacture of golf balls for many years.” His time had passed, but little Billie Geer from far upstate New York had left his mark on the sport.

When Tiger Woods rolled in the winning putt at the 2019 Masters, it was a great moment for him and for millions of fans, but it was something else as well. In athletics, wonderful achievements reflect the current state of a sport’s evolution, which is guided by different factors: training methods, diet, medical care, and ongoing improvements to equipment. (For instance, we wouldn’t see today’s level of tennis if wooden rackets hadn’t been replaced by modern compounds.)

In the world of golf, we can rightly claim that one of the North Country’s greatest inventors, William C. Geer, played a substantial role in that process.

Coming soon: Geer’s greatest works.

Photos: William C. Geer (India Rubber World magazine, 1919); headlines (Potsdam Herald-Recorder, 1924); Geer Patent Cover golf ball (eBay); Wilson golf balls with Cadwell-Geer covers (eBay); advertisement (Life magazine, 1951); U.S. Royal golf balls with Cadwell-Geer covers (eBay)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Rick says:

    Another awesome article!

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