In 1912, a 31-year old engineer named Dan
J. O'Conor was working for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh when he
developed a process for making laminated insulators by rolling
and pressing resin-coated fabric. O'Conor filed for a patent
in February, 1913, and received the one dollar that Westinghouse
paid for rights to employees' inventions. Within weeks, O'Conor,
who had been head of the process section of the research &
engineering department, and Herbert A. Faber, 30, the manager
of insulating-material sales, had quit Westinghouse to start
their own insulator business.
The material commonly used in those days
for electrical insulation was mica. The new product was a substitute
for mica, so that's what Faber named their new company.
(Seventy five years later, applied to a completely different
product, Formica would be one of the world's 10 best-known brand
They began operating on May 2, 1913, filling
an order for V-rings for electric motors from Chalmers Motor
Company. By September, Formica had 18 employees making parts
for Bell Electric Motor, Ideal Electric and Northwest Electric,
the predecessor to Delco. That same year, they renamed themselves
The Formica Insulation Company.
But before the end of 1913, Westinghouse
was also making plastic laminates. Both companies bought their
resin from the Bakelite Company, which soon licensed only Westinghouse.
Formica would be limited to tubes and rings. Faber and O'Conor
had to find a new resin process. They settled on one using "Redmanol,"
a resin developed in Chicago by a Canadian chemist named L. V.
Redman, with backing from two brothers named Sam and Adolph Karpen.
Free to produce sheet laminate, Formica
rented a plant at Spring Grove Avenue and Alabama Street, not
far from the Cincinnati stockyard, and installed a new $6,000
press. Redman himself came from Chicago to help them learn to
work with his resin. The first Formica-brand sheet laminate came
off the press on July 4, 1914, a little more than a year after
the company started business. Formica turned a profit for the
first time in 1916, then boomed with defense orders in 1917 when
the Navy and Signal Corps needed insulators for their new radios.
Aircraft makers also needed lightweight pulleys for control cables,
and sales went from $75,000 in 1917 to $145,000 in 1918.
After the war, growth continued, with sales
hitting $175,000 in 1919. Strong sales meant another new plant,
farther out along Cincinnati's Spring Grove Avenue, in Winton
Place. The site included a two-story office building and space
for expansion. Formica moved there in 1921, and it would become
the headquarters until well after World War II.
Meanwhile, five years of lawsuits began
in 1919 over patent infringement and other issues stemming from
confusion and disagreement about who had invented and patented
what and when. Formica found itself pitted against Westinghouse
and General Electric, and the cases also involved leading resin
makers Bakelite, Redman/Karpen and Condensite.
In the end, having repeatedly won decisions
in court or on appeal, Formica benefited tremendously from an
agreement between Bakelite and the Karpens. The resulting merger
combined the major resin makers into a new Bakelite Corporation,
which would provide material and technical assistance to all,
Around 1923, Formica convinced one Chicago
parts maker to try automotive timing gears cut from phenolic
resin blanks. The new gears were tough and quiet. By 1932, Formica
would be producing 6,000 gear blanks a day for such giants as
Chevrolet, Studebaker, Buick, Maxwell, Auburn, Pontiac, Willys-Overland
and Graham-Paige. It was only a short leap from gears for autos
to gears for the fast-growing appliance industry, and another
to making parts for textile machines for making the new synthetic
fabrics. Sales quadrupled from $360,000 in 1921 to $1.9 million
in 1923, then doubled again in a year, to $3 million in 1924.
In 1927, Formica patented a new and more
efficient rotogravure printing process for making decorative,
wood-grained or marble-surfaced laminate. Developed during months
of trials by Formica's George H. Clark and Jack D. Cochrane,
it was the first of many products that have made the name "Formica"
virtually synonymous in the public mind with the stuff of which
restaurant tables and kitchen countertops are made. The next
step was to develop continuous designs on rotogravure printing
cylinders and phenolic printing inks that could withstand the
Steadily, through the late 1920s and into
the 1930s, Formica improved the new product, testing different
inks and resins, cores and surfaces, processes and methods. A
key change was the adoption of the urea resins, permitting laminates
that were less expensive to make, more resistant to light, heat
and humidity, and capable of being manufactured in a wide range
of colors and designs. In 1931, by putting an aluminum-foil layer
between the core and surface, Formica engineers even developed
a "cigarette-proof" surface that was widely used in
New York's world famous Radio City Music Hall.
In 1937, despite the great Ohio River flood
that devastated every industry in the low-lying Mill Creek Valley
in Cincinnati, sales reached $3.5 million. And in Scotland, the
Formica name got a tremendous publicity boost when the designers
of the Queen Mary specified Formica laminates for decorative
wall surfaces throughout.
The following year, another new resin appeared:
melamine. Developed by American Cyanamid Company, it resisted
heat, abrasion and moisture better than phenolic or urea resins
and could be used to make laminates in more colors than older
resins. It also could be molded. Formica's experts began adapting
it to the production of decorative laminates. By year's end,
Formica was buying every ounce of melamine that American Cyanamid
made, but it would be 10 years before melamine took hold.
During the World War II era, the company
developed a new glass-melamine laminate for electrical insulation,
made parts for machine tools, and developed early silicone and
epoxy laminates. Formica produced its plastic-impregnated "Pregwood"
for use in airplane propellers instead of scarce aluminum. The
company's biggest single order was for a bomb part called burster
tubes. Sales virtually doubled the first year of WWII, from $4.2
million in 1940 to $8.3 million in 1941. At the war-production
peak in 1943, sales reached $15.7 million.
When the war ended in 1945, a huge reservoir
of demand existed for decorative laminates for kitchens, bathrooms
and furniture, as well as in public buildings, such as the 200,000
classrooms soon to be built across America. In 1948, recognizing
this new direction as a manufacturer of a building products for
consumers, Formica dropped the word "Insulation" from
its corporate name and became The Formica Company.
In the late 1940s, work started on a new
company factory in Evendale, Ohio. It would be the first built
by Formica itself, and the first designed just to produce decorative
laminates. When the company moved in early 1951, expansion was
Meanwhile, melamine finally began having
a larger impact on sales. Laminates made with the new resin let
furniture and cabinetmakers form and shape the product after
manufacture. This led to extensive use of laminates in bathrooms,
as well as kitchens. In 1947, the company had entered foreign
markets, licensing London's De La Rue Company to make and sell
decorative laminates in Europe. By 1951, sales had topped $24
million. The company had announced a 2-for-1 stock split in 1950,
when the market price topped $80 a share. In 1957, American Cyanamid
bought Formica, making it a wholly owned subsidiary. A new research
center was built at Evendale in 1960. The same year, De La Rue
and Cyanamid formed the new Formica International Limited. In
1966, the company built a modern laminate-making plant in Sierra,
In 1970, when Formica closed the old industrial
laminates operation in Winton Place, Ohio and moved the headquarters
offices into the new Formica Building in downtown Cincinnati,
conversion from an industrial-products company to a maker of
decorative laminates was complete.
Almost immediately, a new era began. Until
then, Formica had been a company driven by chemistry and engineering.
For 50 years, the technical experts had experimented with processes
and materials, inventing new products and brainstorming new uses
for old ones. In the 1970s, Formica came to be driven by design
In 1974, De La Rue sold American Cyanamid
its majority interest in Formica International Limited. American
Cyanamid, however, wanted to concentrate on research, new products
and growth. Formica laminates represented a mature industry and
constituted only 5 percent of American Cyanamid's earnings in
1983. So, in May 1985, American Cyanamid sold Formica Corporation
for $207 million to Formica management personnel, backed by Shearson
In 1986, Formica Corporation announced
the acquisition of Wildon Industries, Inc., a manufacturer of
a diversified line of resin based building products. This provided
Formica Corporation with the opportunity to market a new type
of countertop material solid surfacing. The company introduced
the new line as Formica brand 2000X building products.
Unlike laminate, 2000X was a cast, homogenous, structural fill
material categorized by durability, heat resistance and satin
finish. In 1987, the new owners took their company public, issuing
stock to raise capital and pay off debt. Two years later, Formica
Corporation merged with FM Acquisition Corp., a group formed
by Formica management, Saratoga Partners II, LP and Masco Corporation
to acquire the company and take it private. Following the merger,
Formica Corporation became a wholly-owned subsidiary of FM Holdings,
In the 1990s the company introduced Surell®
Solid Surfacing, a newly developed and improved replacement for
2000X. In 1993, it launched Formica Ligna® wood surfacing,
a product manufactured exclusively for Formica Corporation by
Alpi S.p.A., the world's leading manufacturer of multi-laminar
wood veneer. In 1996, the company began producing Formica floors,
having a diamond-strong finish, and a unique locking system.
In 1994, Formica was purchased from FM Holdings by BTR Nylex
Ltd. (a subsidiary of BTR plc), one of Australia's largest industrial
companies and manufacturer of a variety of industrial, commercial
and consumer products. BTR later divested Formica Corporation
in 1998, as the result of a strategic decision to focus on technology-driven,
In March 2002, Formica filed for Chapter
11 bankruptcy protection after struggling through years of losses.
On September 23, 2003, Formica announced that it had filed its
Plan of Reorganization, and in January 2004, the United States
Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York confirmed
the company's Plan of Reorganization, clearing the way for its
emergence from bankruptcy and return to profitability.
Formica Corporation's global headquarters
are located in Cincinnati, Ohio.
SOURCE: Formica Corporation
web page: www.formica.com.