Francis Erskine White
World-Class Engineer Who Revolutionized Steel Fabrication
Inducted in 2001
In May 1934, Francis Erskine White graduated in from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), having attended college during the Great Depression. At graduation he received the Miller Reese Hutchinson Award for his work in inventive design, and for which he was to receive a gold medal. Unfortunately, shortly before the award was to be made, a law was passed forbidding the striking of medals in gold. The medal never arrived, but Erskine White’s 66-year love affair with inventing and mechanical engineering ultimately would provide to Alabamians and others employment opp-ortunities, safer work environments, and the competitive edge derived from superior White-designed products.
Mr. White is the consummate mechanical engineer. It does not seem in his nature to stop designing creative apparatus and products. Productivity, durability, versatility, and value are hallmarks of the manufacturing processes he works out; often as not, a White invention revolutionizes the industry in which it is employed. In key segments of the steel business, Mr. White has shaped the standards by which all participants are judged.
A Birmingham native, Mr. White was first in his family to complete college. After graduation, Erskine White was hired as an engineer by Caterpillar, but in 1936 returned home to his father’s 10-year-old steel fabricating firm, the Birmingham Fabricating Company. In 1949 his father retired and Mr. White and his three brothers (Claude,Leonard, and Lewis) claimed the business, Mr. White serving as president and director. The plant was then primarily engaged in fabricating structural steel and in shearing, bending, and welding steel plates.
In 1950, the White brothers initiated the manufacture of mine roof bolts and the expansion shells used with them. These prevented mine roof collapse, and much of the technology was born in Alabama’s coal mines. The White brothers were involved from the start, eventually becoming the dominant national producer. They patented designs for expansion shells, and Erskine White engineered machines for mass-producing roof-bolt products. These included thread rolling machinery, rod heating furnaces, and forging machines that made the bold heads while using completely automatic feed mechanisms. The White brothers founded their second company, Birmingham Bolt, in 1957 and by 1979 had built machinery to equip roof-bolt plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, and Texas.
The White brothers’ companies employed more than 1,000 people by 1980, 300 in Birmingham. They had also acquired two steel mini-mills, securing a direct source of quality steel rod. At this time, the White brothers sold their companies to United Coal, which closed the old family plant in Birmingham. Mr. White and his brother Leonard reacquired this plant site and organized WhiteFab Inc. a firm that might have continued as a traditional metal-forming service, except that Erskine White was on-board.
When he was 77, Mr. White built and patented completely new equipment for bending structural steel shapes. His innovations attracted the attention of architects and engineers, who had begun using curved steel shapes in their designs. Mr. White’s beam bending apparatus allowed beams, channels, and tubes to be bent to tighter radii than did older procedures. Industrial designers and others recognized new possibilities in the smoothly curved parts Mr. White supplied. Demand grew and today the Birmingham company has customers throughout North and South America. WhiteFab bending is acknowledged as superior to traditional rolling machinery for many applications. To date he has designed and built six different models of his bending machinery, each of them reflecting improvements on the previous model.
During the mid-1980s, the White brothers acquired an interest in the Razorback Steel Corporation in Arkansas. This led to the development of a superior and cheaper method of making railroad tie plates. Although the Whites no longer have an interest in this plant, railroad tie plates today are being produced in Arkansas and shipped all over the world with tooling designed by Erskine White.
Mr. White has been married to Molly Tyson White for 62 years. He has two daughters, Jane White Fickling and Frances White Hultquist, five grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. At 88, Mr. White remains ever the visionary, continuing his work to improve the bending process. He is innately reflective, always looking forward to the next level of efficiency. In his unassuming manner, he serves profession and community alike, building a monumental legacy of assisting others.