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Mike Maddock, General Manager
2010-03-05 / Business

Columbian, pioneer in the steel industry

Contributed by Julia Robinson Langford

Walt and Julia Langford Walt and Julia Langford Walt Langford was the speaker for the Golden K Kiwanis Club’s weekly meeting at the Capital Senior Center. He told of his experiences in the field and growth of steel and other metals in the industrial world.

Walt grew up in Toccoa, Georgia, and attended Georgia Tech in Atlanta on a football scholarship. R. G. LeTournneau, the wealthy industrialist, operated a plant in Peria, Illinois, and opened a plant in Toccoa, Georgia in 1938. He announced his plans to move his earth–moving equipment to Toccoa. He designed and built many machines that are still in use today all over the world.

Walt’s uncle Baxter Williams, had a connection to LeTournneau and introduced Walt to him. Walt applied for a job. LeTournneau was a Christian man who treated Walt like a son in a relationship which would last for more than 27 years during which time Walt served as his chief metallurgist, which is the art and science of extracting metals from their ores, refining them, and preparing them for use.

They operated four plants in the United States and one in London. Using the best and fastest private planes, two A26 Bombers, Letournneau would visit each plant weekly for three weeks with Walt making the rounds one week a month for oversight. The Toccoa plant produced 46 scrapers and ten parachute– delivered earth movers a week. Walt initially served in the Heating and Furnace Construction Department.

The LeTournneau firm started grading for an airport in Toccoa using standard crawler equipment. They decided to invite Harvey Firestone to visit Toccoa and asked him to make rubber tires for the earth–moving machines.

Firestone said, “Earth–moving equipment will never be on rubber tires. However, LeTourneeau negotiated with Firestone for 40 tires to be made from a mould made by the firm. The rubber tires permitted the equipment’s speed to increase from 13 miles per hour to 33 miles per hour. That change revolutionized most equipment for construction to be on rubber tires.

In the shop doing heat treating and buildingtreating furnaces, after about six months, the firm obtained a contract to manufacture 155 mm shells for the beginning of World War II.

In eight months Walt was transferred to the Vicksburg, Mississippi, plant in charge of the metallurgical and heating furnaces. The plant was also manufacturing shells and having problems that Walt quickly solved. They were buying metal in seven– inch square steel billets, heating them to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit on the draw range to shape the shells. He noticed the heating was being done with an inferior burner, which he corrected. They were using a convection–type burner that was changed to a radiation–type burner. One day while LeTournneau was visiting in Vicksburg a guard came in with a local Baptist preacher. The preacher and his minister of music told LeTournneau they had a conversation with the Lord and he told them that LeTournneau would give him a big donation for a new church.

R. G. chuckled and said he talked to the Lord daily, but said, “I have no recollection of the Lord mentioning such a donation to me.”

He ultimately did give a donation for he was known for travelling all over the country as a lay preacher and for making generous contributions to important causes.

LeTournneau bought several thousand acres of land in Vicksburg, and he shipped metal from Peoria, Illinois, to Vicksburg for use. He tried to get into the oil drilling business by building oil rig platforms 300 feet by 300 feet square with four floors. At that time, the welding was done by hand using hand shields. This process was slow and tedious.

Walt studied the situation, used his machine shop, and made a machine welder using seven inch rollers facing each other with a ground all the way around each roller so a welding wire could go through (12 gage steel wire) purchased in 12 foot lots.

He fed the wire through the rollers down a funnel with flux and an electric charge that would arc and create the weld on the steel material. The flux covered the metal, and as it cooled it would peel off like a banana peel exposing a perfect weld.

LeTournneau got so enthused that he called Lincoln to come to the plant to view it. Walt set up two 5/8 in. thick steel plates and put his machines on it.

Lincoln watched the machine do a weld penetrating the metal plate so the weld was smooth on top. When it finished, he grunted and said, “It is just like doing it in bed—you don’t know what you are going to get until you throw back the sheets.” That day we called it “squirt” welding and applied for a patent.

The patent office required them to change the name so we called it “submerged arc welding,” which it is known as today. The patent was sold to Lincoln.

The speed of welding was greatly increased for hand or machine welding. A problem developed on the steel platforms with the breaking system. Walt suggested to LeTournneau that he use powdered iron, manganese, and other powdered material for the brake pads. This increased the performance of the platform today.

This patent required Walt to go to Washington, D.C. and testify before the Fair Trade Commission which, at that time was “the highest court.” This braking system pad is accepted nationally for automotive, trucking, industry, and railroads.

After World War II was over, LeTournneau obtained a prisoner–of– war camp in Long View, Texas. He converted it into a trade school that grew into the LeTournneau University of today. LeTournneau’s books and personal papers are housed there. On the beautiful grounds, there is a life–size statue on a pedestal of him with some of the equipment he developed. The chapel has a bell tower with chimes.

Walt was transferred to the Long View, Texas, plant for the purpose of buying equipment and supplies from the government war surplus, and he traveled extensively during that time period.

He designed and built melting furnaces and soaking pits. The plant started designing and building a roller drill 150 inches wide to eliminate so much welding. When the plant produced more steel than it needed, the surplus was offered to the public.

The ship building industry was interested in the wider width and higher strength material. This is when Walt developed the H–Y–80 high strength material that was used for nuclear submarines. It is said, “Torpedos could not penetrate the hull’s steel body.”

The United States at this time was in the Cold War with Russia. Germany was building the “The Berlin Wall.”

President Reagan was building underground missile silos 300 feet deep and 130 feet in diameter in Washington State near the Grand Coulie Dam. Walt was elected chairman of a group of nine to solve a problem with the hinges on the silo lids. The problem was solved by replacing the hinges on the lid with greater strength material.

Frank Owens and son, heard about Walt’s work and came to Long View, Texas, to get him to Columbia, SC, to build a rod steel mill for the Owen Company in Cayce, SC.

Walt accepted their offer and came to Columbia in 1961. His advisors were Hugh Rogers, attorney; Raymond Caughman, bank president; and Kermit Addy, Dodge dealer and Lexington mayor. The original mill is in operation today with many additions.

After completing the mill for the Owen’s Company, Walt became part owner of Dixiana Steel. Later, he sold his interest and opened his own Company, Steel Specialty.

Dr. Joe Wallace, president of The Golden K. Kiwanis, commended Walt and graciously thanked him for all his work in steel for the country, the nation, and the world.

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