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Home : Volume 23 : Fall 1996 :
ChE founder also helped spur battery industry

In today's academic world, Charles F. Burgess is known as the founder of UW-Madison's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, a program now ranked among the nation's best. But Burgess' efforts also spawned another U.S. leader, Madison-based Rayovac Corporation, the country's third-largest battery producer.
Charles F. Burgess

Charles F. Burgess
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Burgess' career in the battery industry began at the turn of the century when the French Battery Company of Madison (renamed the Rayovac Company in the mid-1930s) asked him to analyze some of its products. Already operating Northern Chemical Engineering Laboratories, a consulting and experimental facility, Burgess knew he could help the start-up manufacturer produce a better electric dry battery. Soon he bought 100 shares of French stock, was elected to its board and took over the engineering department.

Progress was slow at first, according to the corporation's biography, titled The RAYOVAC Story. . . the First 75 Years. The book offers some excerpts from a note Burgess wrote to his father in 1908: "Perhaps you are wondering about that battery business I took up last November. Well, I found it in worse shape than I expected and it has been a hard struggle. The company had never made a cent -- in fact, had lost over $50,000 . . . they were making the poorest battery on the market. While we are not out of the woods, things have materially improved . . . at the present time I believe we are making the best battery in the country. We are making about five times as many batteries per day as we were last December."

Throughout this time, Burgess was also developing a vision for the flashlight, which had been invented in 1900 but was written off by many as nothing more than an impractical gadget. He devoted a great deal of time to finding just the right formula for a flashlight battery. In 1910, French contracted with Burgess to sell the flashlight batteries he was producing in his own laboratories. This was the first year French made a profit. However, there were some problem's with these early products, and production was halted while Burgess worked on a solution. In 1913, French again contracted with Burgess to sell his flashlight batteries, and a year later also added to its sales line the tubular flashlight cases he was manufacturing.

Also that year, American Eveready, which controlled 90 percent of the market, attempted to run all of its competitors out of business by claiming patent infringement on a manganese oxide battery component. Ironically, Burgess developed a new material that was so superior that even American Eveready ended up licensing it.

After World War I broke out in 1914, French received a military contract to produce one million 6-inch batteries for use in field telephones. That same year, batteries produced in Burgess' lab were assembled into jackets at the French plant to be sold under the name "Fleur-de-Lis." Burgess-produced flashlights called "French Flashers" also became popular around this time. These developments led to a doubling in sales for both flashlight and 6-inch batteries.

On a tragic note, a fire broke out in 1915 in the heart of production season, posing a serious setback for both French and Burgess, who by then had moved his cell-manufacturing operation to the French plant. The blaze destroyed the facility, and relationships were never the same after it was reconstructed. In 1916, Burgess parted ways with French Battery Company, authorizing the manufacturer to produce flashlights under the patents he then held.

Burgess left the College of Engineering in 1913 after 19 years on the faculty, initially as an electrical engineering instructor before starting the chemical engineering program in 1905. The ties he formed during these years had a great impact on his business endeavors. For example, Research Products, another major Madison company, was spawned by the work of Burgess and his assistants.

Also, Walter Schulte, who was one of the first graduates of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, initially worked for Burgess at Northern Chemical Laboratories, and then followed him to the Burgess Battery Company, which Burgess founded in Madison in 1917. Schulte became one of the company's new directors, and fellow ChE alumnus Benjamin Smith Reynolds became a manager. In 1925, Freeport, Ill., offered Burgess $50,000 to start a new division of his company there. Burgess did just that... but returned the money. That division was later renamed Microswitch, and today forms a division of Honeywell Inc.

Special thanks to Rayovac Corporation and Sangtae Kim, chairman of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, for their help with this story.

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