The Humphrey Brothers
“An Inventive Family”
A family of ingenious inventors from Kalamazoo made a significant impact on the modern world around the turn of the 20th century with a series of technological innovations, including a home hot water heater, a ceramic fireplace heater, a “water lift” pump, and a revolutionary gas streetlight called the “Humphrey Light.”
Roots of the Humphrey companies date to 1883 when Alfred Henry Humphrey (1858-1932) had moved from the family home in Mendon to Kalamazoo where he was working as a machinist, most likely for Harry C. Potter’s newly formed Michigan Scale manufacturing company. Two years later his brother Frederick John Humphrey (1860-1929) was working for Michigan Scale and by 1887 had become a foreman there. A third brother, Charles W. Humphrey (1857-1889), had also joined the firm by that time as a machinist.
Meanwhile, a fourth brother, Herbert Sidney Humphrey (1864-1942), was an award-winning photographer and inventor who moved from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo in 1887 and formed a partnership with photographer Frank P. Ford. Ford & Humphrey took top honors for their work at the Kalamazoo County Fair and became well known for their portraiture.
Humphrey Brothers Manufacturing and Plating Co.
Charles Humphrey suffered from ill health and passed away in 1888. Meanwhile, his parents, George Humphrey (1836-1912) and Emma Reed Humphrey (1829-1905), moved from Mendon to Kalamazoo, where George founded the Humphrey Brothers Manufacturing and Plating Company with sons Alfred and Frederick. The Humphreys set up their nickel plating, burnishing, and specialty brass work business in a back-room shop behind Smith & Woodard’s windmill factory in the 300 block of North Burdick Street next to the Michigan Scale Company (where Alfred, Fred, and Charles had been working).
After their building sustained serious damage in a May 1891 fire, the Humphreys relocated their business to a former skating rink at 137 Portage Street, where they shared a space with the L.J. Strait Manufacturing Company (a brass foundry and machine shop). The Humphrey Company was by then shipping goods worldwide and doing “a large business” (Gazette) making supplies for photographers. This included a special machine for burnishing (polishing) photographic prints that was invented and patented by Alfred Humphrey. By 1892 the firm was turning out 200 such machines per month with plans to expand. An example of Humphrey’s contract metal plating work was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Herbert S. Humphrey
In 1894, the Humphrey Manufacturing and Plating Company was incorporated with capital stock of $15,000. George Humphrey became president, Fred Humphrey was vice president and treasurer, and Alfred Humphrey became general manager. Herbert Humphrey had dissolved his partnership with Frank Ford by then, and he joined the Humphrey family firm as secretary.
To accommodate the growing business, Alfred and Fred purchased a pair of lots in the 500 block of North Rose Street near the Michigan Central tracks and hired contractor Edwin J. Manning to erect a new three-story brick factory building. While the new building was under construction, the company moved from Portage Street to temporary quarters in an existing building at 520 North Rose.
Humphrey Water Heater Company
Having successfully weathered the great depression of the 1890s, George Humphrey retired from the firm in 1897, leaving the business to his three sons. Inspired by the gas heated rollers in Alfred’s burnishing machines, Herbert invented an “automatic instantaneous” hot water heater that quickly heated cold tap water “any time of the day or night at the rate of 2 or 3 gallons per minute” (Gazette).
The three brothers; Alfred, Herbert, and Frederick, were granted a patent for the device in January 1896. The firm immediately began manufacturing Humphrey’s “Instantaneous Water Heater,” which proved highly successful. In 1899, Herbert bought out his brothers and continued to manufacture water heaters under the Humphrey Manufacturing and Plating Company banner, although the name was later shortened to Humphrey Manufacturing.
“We had a good sale all during the hard times and are still at it. In ’97 we ran short time for two weeks but the rest of the time we have been running full time and paying good wages, which are somewhat increased now.”
—H.S. Humphrey, Kalamazoo Saturday Telegraph, 18 November 1899
Herbert sold Humphrey Manufacturing in 1913 to the Ruud Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh, although he remained with the firm as its vice president. According to 1925 advertisements, the company was employing some 300 workers by then, and its gas water heaters were being used in every part of the world. By 1933, Herbert Humphrey had been granted nearly 60 patents for water heaters, valves, and related mechanisms.
In 1937, Ruud moved its Humphrey Division from the original site on North Rose Street to a larger facility on Factory Street near Lane Boulevard. Following a lengthy illness, Herbert Humphrey passed away in November 1942. Ruud Manufacturing (purchased by Rheem in 1960) was dissolved in 1964, although Rheem continues to manufacture water heaters under the Ruud brand name.
Alfred H. Humphrey
While Herbert was taking the Humphrey Manufacturing and Plating Company in a new direction with its hot water heaters, Alfred Humphrey had developed and patented a revolutionary new automatic gas lighting fixture in which gas jets burned upright (like a candle) so the light could be reflected downward more effectively.
Initially designed for commercial applications, Humphrey installed prototypes inside the gas company office and the Kalamazoo Post Office, which according to the Kalamazoo Gazette, transformed the building into “perhaps the best lighted building at night in Michigan.” The new lighting fixture quickly got the attention of the local gas company executives and as word of the new fixture spread, it became clear that a new manufacturing facility was warranted.
General Gas Light Company
After months of testing and perfecting his invention, Alfred Humphrey formed the General Gas Light Company in April 1901 with initial capital of $80,000. Alfred Humphrey was elected president and general manager, Kalamazoo Gas Company secretary/treasurer Edward Woodbury was vice president, and John J. Knight, also from the Kalamazoo Gas Company, became company manager. Other stockholders included Kalamazooans Dallas Boudeman, Harry D. Walbridge, Arthur L. Zwisler, and Edwin C. Dayton, with additional investors from Detroit and Otsego.
With an initial staff of 25 workers, the General Gas Light Company purchased the former Tyler & Turner lumber yard and factory building at the northwest corner of Water and Church streets, where they began manufacturing their “Humphrey Light” gas fixtures. Soon afterwards, a new building was erected at the corner of Park and Water streets to support the rapidly growing business. For Christmas that year, all employees were given a $2 cash bonus (roughly $75 today) as a sign of Humphrey’s appreciation.
“The Humphrey Light”
After experiencing “phenomenal” (Gazette) sales success with its indoor commercial lighting fixtures, the General Gas Light Company introduced a revolutionary new form of outdoor gas streetlamp, something claimed to be “entirely new in that line” (Gazette). The firm received permission from the city to install twenty of its new “Humphrey Light” streetlamps along South Street where they could be seen and tested.
The General Gas Light Company had 2,500 streetlamps in use along Kalamazoo streets by 1906. Two years after that, the firm was producing 60,000 lamps per year and advertising that 750,000 of its lamps were in use around the world. Smaller lamps were soon developed, including a new arc lamp for residential and office use. Both the Humphrey Water Heater Company and the General Gas Light Company had their products on display at the 1908 National Commercial Gas Association meeting in Chicago.
By 1919, the General Gas Light Company had opened stores and sales agencies in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Atlantic City. New factory buildings were put up in 1905 and 1910 to support the company’s rapid growth, but a major expansion project after World War I sought to double the firm’s production capacity and double its workforce by adding new machinery and yet more factory floorspace. The City of Kalamazoo approved the closure of an alley between Church and Park streets, which allowed the company to occupy the entire city block bordered by Park, Eleanor, Church, and Water streets.
Michigan Enameling Works
Herbert Humphrey had continued to use the “Humphrey Manufacturing and Plating Company” name for a time, although the business had clearly moved away from contract plating and brass work. Sensing an opportunity, Carl H. Zwermann of the General Gas Light Company formed a subsidiary that specialized in plating and enameling called the Michigan Enameling Works. The firm was incorporated in August 1904 with Zwermann as president and general manager, with stockholders John Knight, Arthur Zwisler, Dallas Boudeman, and Walter M. Blinks (all General Gas Light Company shareholders).
Michigan Enameling continued to do the enamel work for the General Gas Light Company, but the firm also took on some contract work. In 1910, Michigan Enameling Works manufactured some 1,500 new street signs for the City of Kalamazoo. (A few of these signature blue enamel signs with white letters can still be seen around town.) Michigan Enameling manufactured porcelain enamel signs for the street railway company and for other businesses across the country.
To make way for General Gas Light Company expansion and hopefully expand its own trade in the process, Michigan Enameling was moved from its original location on Water Street to a separate facility on West Ransom Street. It remained a profitable subsidiary of the General Gas Light Company until a Great Depression era sales slump sent the firm into receivership. Michigan Enameling Works was dissolved in 1933.
“Radiant Fire” Home Heaters
During the First World War, the General Gas Light Company saw a slump in sales as electricity began to supplant gas as a reliable medium for lighting. Realizing the need to diversify, the company introduced a new product in 1916 called the “Radiant Fire” (later “Radiantfire”) gas heater.
Designed as a fireplace insert, Humphrey’s “Radiant Fire” heaters converted wood burning home fireplaces into “odorless, noiseless and safe” gas space heaters with ceramic heating elements as opposed to the old-style asbestos grates. “No ashes, No dirt, No gas odors” (Gazette). After the war, Humphrey called on the Kalamazoo Central High School commercial art class to design artwork for its initial advertising.
By 1922, there were more than 350,000 Humphrey “Radiantfire” heaters in use across the country. The firm employed 500 workers by then, with an annual output of 100,000 devices in 32 different styles. A $250,000 national advertising campaign helped boost sales and by 1930, the company employed nearly 600 workers with annual sales approaching 150,000 units.
As time went on the firm continued to develop new products, such as overhead gas heaters, residential space heaters, commercial barbecues, and propane lamps. Alfred Humphrey was granted more than 80 patents for his gas lamps, gas heaters, gas stoves, water heaters, valves, and even a method of finishing metal surfaces.
The Humphrey family held the reigns of the company across three generations. After Alfred Humphrey passed away in 1932, his sons took over directorship in succession: Harold E. Humphrey until his death in 1934, Hubert R. Humphrey until his death in 1946, George A. Humphrey until 1959, and Alfred H. Humphrey until 1972.
Recognizing the changing times, the General Gas Light Company sold off its gas heater business in 1959. The firm was renamed Humphrey Products with a focus on pneumatic valves, control units, and other devices. In 1960, the company moved to a new manufacturing facility at the corner of Sprinkle Road and Kilgore Road, where it continues to produce devices for a range of industries, “from agriculture to aerospace” (Gazette). Today, Humphrey Products remains a leading producer of pneumatic valves and liquid control components. The original downtown factory complex was razed in 1960 to make way for the 118-room Park West Motel, which operated until 1987. Today, the block is occupied by the West Michigan Cancer Center.
Frederick J. Humphrey
While Herbert and Alfred Humphrey were developing their respective water heater and gas light businesses, Frederick J. Humphrey developed and patented a new form of hydraulic pump he called a water lift. The device allowed homeowners to capture soft rainwater in a cistern and have it available from running faucets throughout the home for laundry and bathing. In July 1905, Humphrey formed the F.J. Humphrey Company and began manufacturing the device in a workshop on the east side of Farmer’s Alley behind Horace Prentice & Sons’ South Burdick Street furniture store.
National Water Lift
In 1909, Fred Humphrey sold the water lift company to his brother-in-law Roland J. Fairchild with whom he had been working, and Franklin L. Marantette, a former bond salesman from Mendon. Fairchild re-organized the firm as the National Water Lift Company with $20,000 capital stock and sought to expand the business. Roland Fairchild became company president, Kalamazoo banker Fred G. Dewey was vice president, and Frank Marantette became secretary and treasurer.
“An Expert Mechanic”
Fred Humphrey was widely recognized as “an expert mechanic” (Gazette). After selling his water lift business, Fred joined the General Gas Light Company for a brief time as a so-called “experimenter.” Around 1911, Fred transferred to Michigan Enameling Works (a division of General Gas Light), where he served as vice president until 1920. He then rejoined the General Gas Light Company as a mechanical engineer, and remained as such until his death in November 1929.
Fred received at least 19 patents for his designs over the years. In addition to patent protection granted in 1903 and 1908 for his water lift (initially described as a “water motor”), Fred and his brother Alfred were granted joint patent protection for a gas lamp in 1908, while Fred and his brother Herbert were together granted nine additional patents between 1912 and 1917 for gas lamps, globes, and related mechanisms. Fred alone was granted five additional patents for gas lamps and accessories between 1910 and 1915, along with his design for a “Refrigerating Machine” in May 1925.
By 1914, the company had sold thousands of its pumps and made the necessary move to a new, larger building at 1643 Portage Street in the Edison Neighborhood. The company continued to grow and was moved again in 1949 to a still larger facility at 2220 Palmer Avenue. The National Water Lift Company eventually became known as Abex NWL, a division of Parker Aerospace, with some 450 employees that manufactured hydraulic pumps and components for the aerospace and defense industries. In 1996, the firm was sold to Cleveland-based Parker-Hannifin Corporation and is now the Hydraulic Systems Division of Parker.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, October 2023.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 August 1887, page 4
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 February 1891, page 4
“Armory block ablaze”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 May 1891, page 2
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 March 1892, page 5
“Humphrey Manufacturing and Plating Co”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 August 1892, page 4
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 March 1893, page 5
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 August 1895, page 5
“Revolutionizes gas lighting”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 July 1900, page 8
“Is meeting with universal favor”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 February 1901, page 2
“New factory for Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 March 1901, page 4
“General Gas Light Company”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 April 1901, page 5
“General Gas Light Company”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 April 1901, page 4
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 June 1901, page 1
“New street lamp”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 September 1901, page 5
“Rapidly growing business”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 November 1901, page 2
“Merry Christmas, indeed”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 December 1901, page 1
“Must have more room”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 May 1902, page 8
“Building boom on hand”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 October 1902, page 4
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 February 1904, page 6
“New industry is organized”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 August 1904, page 3
“Residence arc light”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 September 1904, page 1
“Patents for Kazoo people”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 January 1905, page 8
“Factories do a great business”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 April 1905, page 9
“The greatness of Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 July 1905, page 12
“Plan to erect great addition”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 November 1905, page 8
“Start work on new addition”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 November 1905, page 3
“Heart failure causes death”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 November 1905, page 5
“To test street lamps”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 March 1906, page 4
“Michigan Enameling Works”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 July 1906, page 23
“It appears that the Kalamazoo Gas Co…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 September 1906, page 8
“Kalamazoo men secure patents”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 December 1906, page 7
“Start work on two large additions”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 January 1907, page 5
“Wonderful new gas light is invented”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 April 1907, page 15
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 October 1908, page 13
“Kazoo firms will exhibit in Chicago”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 November 1908, page 3
“F.J. Humphrey sells factory interests”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 March 1909, page 3
“Articles of association”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 March 1909, page 5
“New signs baked at high temperature”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 January 1910, page 5
“To erect addition”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 March 1910, page 12
“Building going up fast”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 June 1910, page 10
“George Humphrey expired yesterday”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 September 1912, page 1
“The National Waterlift Co”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 February 1914, page 9
“Enamel signs to be manufactured here”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 January 1915, page 4
“Enamel Works buys new plant”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 August 1916, page 1
“Art class at Central produces classy work”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 June 1919, page 7
“Art work is more popular”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 June 1919, page 11
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 November 1919, page 8
“Will double its capacity”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 December 1919, page 1
“Commission decide to close Gas Light alley”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 January 1920, page 9
“Expect great bldg. activity”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 March 1920, page 17
“Over 350,000 Radiant Fire heaters in use in nation”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 March 1922, page 23
“Bares $250,000 ad drive plans”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 April 1922, page 5
“Improved type of gas heater is built here”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 October 1925, page 101
“Enameling firm is pioneer in field”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 October 1925, page 114
“General Light gas heater is sold to world”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 October 1925, page 116
“Operation fatal to F.J. Humphrey”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 November 1929, page 1
“A.H. Humphrey dies in west at age of 74”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 July 1932, page 1
“Enameling works receiver named”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 June 1933, page 19
“Drop receivership for enamel works”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 June 1933, page 19
“Harold Humphrey dies in New York”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 December 1934, page 1
“Humphrey company to move into its modern building”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 March 1937, page 3
Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 February 1938, page 13
“Who’s who in Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 October 1939, page 16
“Heater firm’s founder dies at home here”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 November 1942, page 1
“Firm sells gas heater business”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 March 1959, page 25
“Gas Light Co. plans move outside city”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 September 1959, page 19
“Gas Light moving to new plant”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 February 1960, page 20
“Reveal plan for large motel here”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 July 1960, page 23
“Plan new downtown motel”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 January 1962, page 26
“General Gas Light promotions told”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 November 1972, page 66
“At Humphrey, one bright idea led to other illuminations”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 February 1986, page 46
“Meet set on NWL closing notice”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 April 1992, page 1
“Abex/NWL to be sold”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 January 1996, page 1
“General Gas Light Co. plant took up a whole downtown block”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 March 2005, page 101
Local History Room Files
History Room Name File: General Gas Light Company
History Room Name File: Humphrey Products