Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame


John t. Gondek - 1997 Inductee

(1911 - 2006) John Gondek was a largely self-taught hydraulic engineer and a versatile, prolific inventor. While most engineers are specialists in one field, he worked in many different aspects of engineering and he combined technology from several areas. Gondek was internationally known, and was sought out for his ability to solve difficult design problems. His inventions and innovations usually resulted in savings of time, labor, and production costs, and have often become industry standards.

Gondek was a 1929 graduate of St. Paul Mechanical Arts High School. He was an outstanding student of science and mathematics, graduating with the highest grades in mathematics and science any of its students had ever earned. (Gondek recounted how a math teacher once urged his English teacher to allow him to graduate, in spite of his less than ideal grades in English.) His varied educational background includes engineering study at the University of Minnesota and night school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He never received a college degree.

From 1929 to 1937 he worked as a machinist, tool maker and chief engineer for the National Battery Company in Boston, Massachusetts. While in Boston, he designed an electric outboard motor, his first patent, and developed a protector to keep battery cables from corroding.

Gondek returned to Minnesota and worked for Northern Ordinance in the Twin Cities for 18 years. While working there, his designs for the U.S. Navy revolutionized the armament of ships before and during World War II. He designed hydraulics for Navy ships under the strictest of time pressures, continuing his work through the war years. He supervised a staff of up to 35 drafting personnel and engineers. His designs, created for a wide variety of ships, included:

-hydraulic training and elevating gears for cruisers, battleships and destroyers

- powder hoists and projectile hoists to load ammunition for the rapid-fire guns of cruisers - rammers for 5-inch and 6-inch guns, and for the 12-inch and 16-inch guns of battleships

- hydraulic controls for submarines

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and U.S. entry into World War II, Gondek was given the job of redesigning hydraulic gear for the ships that had been sunk and then raised for use in the war. The job was expected to take more than a year, but under his supervision, with 30 engineers and 200 tool-makers working under him, it was completed in 90 days.

Often Gondek found himself working against established custom when implementing a new or improved design or manufacturing method. He often found it necessary to plan not only an innovative object, but also the machinery with which to manufacture it. For example, Gondek was asked to design tooling to manufacture torpedo tubes for the U.S.Navy, using the Navy’s drawings. Gondek first designed the tooling, but was later asked to redesign the tube itself.

He redesigned the torpedo tube and loader, along with the machinery to manufacture them. His design for the tube eliminated the extensive hand-fitting after manufacture required with the Navy’s design. The loader previously used by the Navy weighed 2,500 pounds and required one loader for each of the 12 to 14 torpedo tubes on a ship. Gondek’s redesigned loader weighed only 200 pounds and required only one loader per ship.

At the end of each year Northern Ordinance rewarded him with a confidential bonus, "enough to purchase an average-sized new house," as he described it, in recognition of his many designs and inventions.

His other inventions were usually created in response to requests by manufacturers, in many fields, to solve the most challenging design requests. Many of his designs are hydraulic, including pistons, gear pumps and motors, transmissions, valves, seals, and tube fittings. He specialized in miniature hydraulic equipment, such as pumps and pressure switches. Some of his most recent designs were for pumps used by Dairy Queen.

In the 1950s, he founded Gondek Engineering and Oil-Dyne. His daughter, Sister Sharon Gondek, remembers her father starting Gondek Engineering in the basement of their home when she was a child. "He certainly was very determined," she said. "He liked a challenge. He wasn’t one to be restrained by the rules. He always made the naval inspectors very nervous, because he didn’t do things as they had been done before."

At Oil-Dyne he designed and manufactured a line of miniature hydraulic pumps, cylinders, and valves, all new to industry. This became a very profitable business as there was little competition because of the unique designs. The Oil-Dyne company was sold in 1970 and continues to operate as Oildyne, Inc.

He earned an international reputation of being able to solve "impossible" problems. One such problem was brought to his drawing table by Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation. For the machines that made its fibreglass thread, the company wanted hydraulic controls that could run for a year without being shut down. Prototypes by other manufacturers were failing within 60 days. Gondek designed and produced in three months his prototype, which operated without failure for nine months. Owens-Corning ordered 10 more, which operated without failure for a year. At that point Owens-Corning ordered 200 of these systems. At the time of Gondek’s induction into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, the systems had continued in operation for 33 years, without having needed repair or replacement.

Another special project was a hydraulically operated gun used to give hypodermic shots (medical inoculations) without a needle, at the rate of 100 shots per hour. The gun was originally designed by the Fort Totten Medical Center. It was powered by an electric motor-driven pump and the cost had proved too high to allow profitability for the builder, Scientific Industries of New York City. Gondek redesigned the stock and some of the internal parts, allowing it to be produced at a fraction of the original cost.

Gondek’s method of working was to design not only a product, but also the tools, jigs and fixtures, or machinery with which to manufacture it, and to supervise manufacturing. By doing this within a single crew, his production consistently proved faster, of lower cost, and of higher quality than with more traditional manufacturing. If he couldn’t maintain control over manufacturing, Gondek didn’t take the job. (His method of developing products within a single crew is beginning to be used by other manufacturers.)

While most engineers are specialists in one field, Gondek worked in many different aspects of engineering and combined technology from several areas. The wide variety of his inventions is demonstrated by this partial list of his accomplishments:

- In 1929 he designed a piston diesel gas generator of a type being used to operate a number of ships more economically than other power sources (including the diesel electric power presently used in locomotives)

- In 1964 he designed for Applied Science Division of the Minneapolis company, Litton, a hydraulic pump to withstand 6,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, inside and out, for the deep-diving submarine known as the ALVIN, for ballast control.

- For War Manufacturing of Minneapolis he designed a machine to make wire frames to hold grass collecting bags on lawn mowers, making what had been a four-step process operated by 50-horsepower presses into a 1-step 15-horsepower job.

- Gondek created an automatically opening davenport/bed and its production equipment for King Koil, patented punch presses for Dayton-Rogers company, and developed a machine for making concrete blocks for Insol Corporation.

- He made a pump for a fast-food restaurant chain that reduces cleaning time for machines used to make soft ice cream. The previous design required dismantling the machine for cleaning every three or four days. Gondek’s device allows for simply flushing the ice cream maker for five minutes with cleaning solution, in place of the four hours the task had taken previously.

Inventions and innovations which haven’t been patented but which have affected industrial manufacture are many. These include a device that extrudes molten metal into castings (squeeze-casting), designed for making non-corrosive battery-cable covers.

Another unpatented invention, the involute spline, was first created for use in U.S. Navy and Air Force equipment. It was an improvement over square-cut splines, simplifying the manufacture of splines, making them less complex to cut, cheaper to make, and capable of longer use before repair or replacement. An involute spline also has a higher torque capacity than a straight-tooth spline of the same major diameter. First shown in the 1959 issue of Machine Design Handbook, the involute spline has now, for the most part, replaced straight-sided splines in industry.

Gondek held more than 50 patents on inventions that have been manufactured. It is estimated he made many times that number of designs for which patent applications were not filed. While working for the United States Navy, his designs were not patented, for the most part, because they were held confidential.

The fields of patents granted to him include: outboard motors, hydraulic piston and gear pumps and motors, hydrostatic transmissions and controls, high-pressure and low-pressure relief valves, zero-leakage hydraulic valves, low break-away hydraulic seals, hydraulic tube fittings, variable-speed reversible air turbines, high-pressure and low-pressure air valves, torpedo launchers, machine tools, cutting tools, pressure-measuring instruments, high-speed roller-bearing screws, over-running clutches, timing devices, motor drive couplings, punch press hydraulic controls, hydraulic folding bed, and structural joints. It is estimated he made many times that number of designs for which patent applications were not filed. While working for the United States Navy, his designs were not patented, for the most part, because they were held confidential.

He died September 8, 2006, at the age of 95.

NOTE: These biographies have been compiled from information accompanying the nomination form submitted to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, information available on the Internet and from a variety of other sources.