The Kruesi family has made significant contributions to Chattanooga since Paul John Kruesi moved here in 1902 to organize the American Lava Co. He developed that business into one of the largest corporations in the South and was active in numerous civic enterprises. In 1906 he married Myra Kennedy Smartt, and they had five children.
Paul John's parents were John Kruesi and Emilie Margaret Zwinger. John Kruesi was born in Speicher, Switzerland, on May 15, 1843. He was apprenticed to a locksmith before training as a clockmaker and instrument builder. He worked in Zurich, Paris and London before emigrating to the United States and settling in Newark, New Jersey. In 1872 John Kruesi began working for Thomas A. Edison in Menlo Park. A year later he married Emilie, a first-generation Swiss emigrant.
In 1877 Edison provided Kruesi with a rough drawing on which he wrote, "Kruesi, Make this." Edison wrapped a sheet of foil around the cylinder, turned it, and shouted "Mary had a little lamb" into the mouthpiece. There were indentations on the foil; he adjusted the diaphragm, turned the cylinder again, and the sound came back out. It was the beginning of the phonograph.
On Feb. 2, 1878, Paul John was born to Emilie and John Kruesi. He was the first of eight children: four sons (Paul John, August, Walter, Frank and John Jr.) and three daughters (Claire, Emily and Olga).
Edison recognized John Kruesi's talent as a machinist and made him manager of the machine shop. Kruesi oversaw the construction of test models for Edison's experiments. Edison would give Kruesi a simplified drawing and discuss his objective, leaving his talented employee to finish it out. Kruesi also held patents for his own inventions that included the original electrical tape, called Kruesi Tape.
In the late 1870s Kruesi made significant contributions to Edison's electric lighting project. He managed the shop that manufactured underground wires in insulated metal tubes and oversaw their installation for the first New York central station. Kruesi served as assistant general manager and then general manager of the Edison Machine Works. In 1886 Kruesi moved with the Edison Machine Works from lower Manhattan to Schenectady, New York. The Edison Tube Co. and the Edison Shafting Co. followed the machine works to Schenectady. Kruesi managed the build-out of the plant and oversaw expansions that began in 1887.
Over the next six years the workforce under John Kruesi grew from 200 to more than 4,000 employees. In 1892 the company merged with several others to form the General Electric Co. Kruesi became general manager and then in 1896 chief mechanical engineer. He was not one to seek the limelight and stayed out of the papers, except for one mention years later: "The river went on one of its periodic rampages in the '90's, and the works were under three feet of water. Everybody went to work, including Manager Kruesi, who waded about in hip boots, his coat tails dragging in the water."
In 1894 Kruesi was honored when a street was named after him near the works. But it was closed a year later to allow for expansion that enabled General Electric to locate permanently in Schenectady. Although Edison was no longer involved with the company, he continued to have a high regard for Kruesi. In 1893 Edison wrote him: "I suppose your salary is so large at Schenectady that you would not care to come and take charge of the Phonograph Works at six thousand per year. We are full of work but I haven't a good man. Perhaps you could work it up to a good paying institution and we could arrange that you could get a percentage of the profits. You would be your own boss and I think it would be more pleasant here in the long run for you."
Emilie Kruesi died in 1897. Two years later, on Feb. 22, 1899, John Kruesi died of influenza at the age of 56. A newspaper reported that 4,000 employees of the works attended the funeral, as did Thomas Edison, who served as executor of Kruesi's will and as legal guardian of his children. Kruesi is buried in Schenectady's Vale cemetery. All of his sons except Frank went to Union College and three went into industry. Since John Kruesi and his son Paul John had worked with Thomas Edison, they were named Edison Pioneers. Their Brock, Killebrew, Frierson, Martin and Kruesi descendants continue a legacy of accomplishment and service in Chattanooga.
Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassn.org.