John V. Davis
Inventor and Leader in Electroplating
Inducted in 2000
The inspiring example of John Virden Davis, inventor, is a real presence to us. When we return to our cars and then our homes each day, his influence is present in our way of life. Mr. Davis patented in 1937 his very first invention, and it revolutionized the world’s metal production industry. Building on the work of his employer, Mr. Marvin Udy, founder of Udylite Corporation and inventor of the electroplating process, Mr. Davis envisioned a hydraulic machine that would supersede hand electroplating and would be capable of working with cadmium, zinc, nickel, bronze, and chrome. Until the more recent invention of high impact plastics, every car bumper in every country had been chrome-plated by his machine. Around the world people are still using lamps, toasters, and bicycles whose parts are electroplated in the fashion Mr. Davis devised. On every continent, his machine is in use.
His work has also shaped our century in more than household ways. For instance, the Davis electroplating machine had coated components of the atomic bombs of World War II infamy. In addition, Mr. Davis patented the “trailer-boat,” the vehicle that became the forerunner of many of the sophisticated amphibious vehicles that our major military powers now employ in abundance. In all, Mr. Davis logged more than 50 registrations with the U.S. Patent Office. A notable share of the industrial growth of America over the past 50 years can be attributed to his inventive genius.
Born in 1903 in Illinois, Mr. Davis moved with his family to Daphne, Alabama, as a young teenager. In 1925 he enrolled at The University of Alabama, participating in ROTC and receiving a commission as a second lieutenant, Corps of Engineers. In 1929 he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. The advent of the Great Depression and the resulting reduction of the active Army precluded his active duty, so Mr. Davis accepted a post at Western Electric Company in Chicago. He carried out research there until 1932, when economic conditions caused the firm to cease research operations. For two difficult years, Mr. Davis and his wife, the former Edna Ray of Tuscaloosa, made do with his odd jobs and brief stints with his Commercial Engineering Laboratories and Nichols-Chase Company, in Detroit, before he joined Udylite Corporation as chief engineer.
The “Udylite split rail principle” — in actuality the John Virden Davis split rail principle — is still cited today in marketing materials of the metal production industry. It is this principle that has made the electroplating process low-cost, low-maintenance, and enviably efficient.
Mr. Davis was selected by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees in 1981 to receive the honorary doctor of law degree in recognition of his remarkable contributions to the country and to an industry. At about the same time, officials of the state of Michigan honored Mr. Davis as one of that state’s most outstanding inventors.
Mr. Davis and his wife, who retired to St. Petersburg, Florida, at the conclusion of his illustrious 38-year career at Udylite, are leading supporters of the College of Engineering at The University of Alabama. His greatest gift to his alma mater has been his example, but also to be found within the institution is a 1936 Rolls Royce, a rare “Hooper Body” automobile, which Mr. Davis donated to the College in 1990. Only six of these vehicles were ever made and one is now lost to fire. Mr. Davis came into possession of the Rolls Royce in 1961. He had licensed a British company to use his electroplating machine, but laws and restrictions made it difficult for the company to send cash overseas to pay resulting royalties. Mr. Davis proposed to be paid in kind, with the car of his dreams.