Investing in Ceramics: Conrad Dressler - Artist, Inventor, Founder
Kiln manufacturer Swindell Dressler celebrates its 100th anniversary by taking a look back at its history.
Conrad Dressler never set out to develop the first successful tunnel kiln. In fact, as an artist, he was a man who harbored an aversion to machinery-made products and industry in general. His history was one of joy followed by defeat; success followed by adversity; and courage to accept change and invent solutions. Dressler’s legacy in art is exceeded by his development of the continuous car-type tunnel kiln—one of the great contributions to the production of industrial ceramics.
An Artistic Gift
Born in 1859, Dressler was a true artist; initially, his mediums were bronze and marble. Gradually, his work became well-known throughout England, and he found himself in the best of all worlds as an artist: he loved his work, and his fame resulted in more than enough income for a comfortable life. He was a commissioned artist, even doing work for the royal family.
But tastes change, and so did Dressler’s following. He switched from bronze sculptures to expressive clay tile in the Della Robbia style for a time, and became quite a ceramicist and potter. Despite all efforts, his sales dwindled and he was faced with the reality that many artists must confront: he could not rely on art for income.
Since he had a true gift with ceramics, he made an arrangement with the J. H. Barratt Co. in Stoke-on-Trent to work for the company’s tile operations. Dressler developed a pure white glaze, and suddenly Barratt was besieged by orders. The industrial revolution of the 19th century had produced a tremendous building boom, and the pure white tile was in great demand for hospitals, commercial kitchens, etc.
Dressler realized that there was no way to meet the demand with the exiting periodic bottle kilns. They were slow to heat and cool, and the accuracy was poor. Thus, the man who was never interested in production machines studied kiln technology—such as it was in those days. He became aware of the concept of a type of continuous kiln, but these ideas were incomplete. Instead, he dreamed up another system with a French engineer named Parvilee, using a continuously firing system with small carts that passed through the kiln, and voila!—the car-type tunnel kiln was born.
Shaping an Invention
With great trepidation, Dressler invested heavily in the design and construction of the new kiln for Barratt. It seemed as if everything was a challenge; after all, he was designing and building a device that had not previously existed. Finding the correct materials and making the required calculations was an endless effort. His fear of failure drove him on. In the end, when the finished kiln was lighted, it worked beyond anyone’s expectations. Within six months, the kiln had fired 2 million tiles without a single firing defect.
As artist turned inventor, Dressler was on his way. He capitalized on that success by starting his own kiln company. Even though Dressler’s invention was more efficient than any other system, its adaptation by others was gradual. But his company did grow, and by 1914, business was exciting. The order book was full with orders from Germany, Russia, France and Belgium.
Dressler found himself once again in dire straits as World War I struck. The orders evaporated almost overnight as European business gave way to European war. As his fledgling company faced extinction, Dressler decided boldly to sail for America to seek his fortune.
A New Chapter
Arriving in 1915, with his designs and concepts but nearly no prospects, in a country thousands of miles from home, he formed the American Dressler Kiln Co.—a company that celebrates its 100th year of continuous service this year. In short order, a request was received from Universal Sanitary Co. for a sanitaryware kiln in New Castle, Pa. Once again, the future of the company hinged on the success of a tunnel kiln. (Such is the fate of the kiln builder, even today. While the purchaser derives benefits from the new kiln for decades, the kiln designer has one opportunity to meet all technical and commercial goals.)
Other kilns soon followed, though that first kiln was the one that revolutionized the production of sanitaryware products. Dressler, by now aided by his son Phillip, branched out into other ceramic industries, including spark plug porcelain, dinnerware, abrasive grinding wheels, high-temperature refractories, and more. While these kilns were muffle kilns—where the products of combustion were separated from the product being fired—the first direct-fire tunnel kiln was built in 1924.
In time, the American Dressler client list read like a “who’s who” in the field of ceramics. By the mid-1930s, over 400 Dressler tunnel kilns were in service. The company received such a strong reception because it offered its clients custom solutions by tailoring its designs to fit the specific application. Many times, the company took on projects that were different than anything that had been done before.
American Dressler branched out into metallurgical applications for the booming steel industry, and merged with William Swindell & Brothers, a heat treating specialist in the Pittsburgh area, in 1930. Thus, the Swindell Dressler Corp. was formed, creating the largest venture of its type in the U.S.
Today, Swindell Dressler International has a portfolio of thousands of kilns serving every significant ceramic sector. At any given time, the company might be designing kilns for technical ceramics requiring special atmospheres; sanitaryware kilns firing thousands of piece of ware per day; carbon baking furnaces with enormous capacities; brick kilns that reduce firing times from 24 hours down to one shift; and special kilns requiring total new systems of heating and control. Much like the “old days,” every project seems different from the last. The company has a saying in its engineering offices that the next duplicate kiln will be the very first.
The history and legacy of Conrad Dressler continues to set the tone of Swindell Dressler International’s operations. Just as Conrad Dressler solved a problem by inventing a solution, Swindell Dressler challenges known technology to build custom designs. Customized solutions, not widgets, have allowed the company to participate in significant developments that have furthered its technologies and those of its customers.
For more information, visit www.swindelldressler.com.
Be sure to watch our video with the author, live from Ceramics Expo 2015!