Brief life of an inventor with a lasting Harvard legacy: 1821-1903

Vita_2 From Harvard Magazine:

Gordon McKay’s name today graces 40 Harvard professorships, numerous fellowships, and a building. He made a fortune in shoe machinery and gave it all (now grown to half a billion dollars) to support applied sciences at the University. His inventiveness, shrewdness, cultural ambitions, and complex love life all helped shape the foundations of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. McKay was born in Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts. He was a fine violinist as a boy, and his taste for high culture stayed with him for life, but he was trained as an engineer. He worked on a railroad and on the Erie Canal before acquiring a machine shop. His first patented invention perfected Blake’s stitching machine.

Ingenuity is good, but nothing beats good timing. When the Civil War began, the government suddenly needed lots of cheap, sturdy boots. In 1862, McKay filled an army order for 25,000 pairs. Yet he realized the real money lay in shoe machinery. From 1862 to 1890, alone and with others, McKay patented some 40 sewing, nailing, tacking, lasting, and pegging machines for mass-producing shoes. Rather than sell his machines, he leased them for royalties—a few cents on every shoe made (anticipating the way Bill Gates supplied Microsoft’s operating system to computer manufacturers, with payments per unit shipped). The shoe machines kept tallies of their output, and manufacturers had to buy stamps to match, redeemable for shares in Mc Kay’s company. Later they had to buy his nails and wire, too. Thanks to such anticompetitive (and now illegal) practices, McKay’s machines by the late 1870s produced half the nation’s shoes—120 million pairs, yielding $500,000 a year.

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