83 TONS OF ENGINES and 70 tons of boilers produce the power to spin the three-bladed propellers of Canada’s new-born corvettes. Many of these power plants are made in the John Inglis plant, home of Canadian-made Bren guns. Large enough to dwarf two pretty young Canadian girls is one of these propellers in the Inglis plant.

By Gregory Clark, January 4, 1941.

Two years ago, when all right-thinking but wrongly informed people were sure there would be no war, the name of the John Inglis plant was in all the newspapers across the country in connection with a parliamentary investigation of the Bren gun contract.

An awful lot of water and a more awful flood of bullets has flowed under and over that small bridge of two years in our lives. The same Bren guns that were the subject of hot discussion are now scattered all over the ramparts of empire, their little Toronto-made barrels, hot with an ever-swelling fire. The same John Inglis plant is now one full year ahead of its promised schedule gun production; new, enormous branches of gun-making plant have sprung up; it is almost fantastic to stand amidst the John Inglis plant today and try to recall the shape and tone of that investigation of a few months ago.

But it is not about Bren guns we visit the John Inglis plant now. And, though the lesson of this story is a hearty one, it is not about the comic – or is it the pathetic? – turns in the affairs of men; not even about the fore-handed men. radio manufacturers if you please, who turned gunmakers and shouldered their way against investigation and world opinion and indifference and even hostility into the position they occupy today as vital factors of our very safety.

This is about ships’ engines. It is about the John Inglis plant, one year ahead on its Bren guns, who are also busy making boilers and engines for Canada’s corvettes. They got contracts for fifteen of these 83-ton engines, each complete with two 70-ton boilers. They undertook to deliver five of them this launching season that has just closed. They have delivered nine.

Our Canadian corvettes are sub-chasers. They are, you might say, little destroyers. Some of them are being made complete in Canadian shipyards that both build the hulls and manufacture the engines. Others are being built by hull builders who install engines made outside. The John Inglis plant has fifteen of those, with their thirty boilers. The balance of the order will be ready before the coming launching season.

Had to Raise Bridges

There are really two races of men who stream into the Inglis plant each shift. The alert, keen servants of machines. And the homely, inarticulate. speechless masters of metal.

The servants of the machines are the most modern. They are younger, smarter, better clothed. They are keen and lively and vivacious. They draw good money. They live zestfully. They are you and me. They don’t know they are servants. But you should see them eagerly attending the little furious machines, each of which contains, within its own glittering self, all the skill the job requires. In fact, the skill of the machine is locked in it. The human hand is not capable of intruding on the machine’s imprisoned brain. In the Bren plant, I saw these machines whittling out tiny steel parts so delicate, so immeasurably measured, they weighed only a fraction of an ounce. Bren gun firing pins, bolts, sears, pawls.

Only a few yards away, in adjoining plants, the masters of metal, in their rough clothes, their faces soiled, their hands rasped and smeared, were proving that in some branches of industry the machine is still the servant of the man. These are the boiler makers, the machinists, the engineers and their helpers. Every tool they use is merely the implement of their skill, their hands and their minds. In this section of the Inglis plant they are making many things besides corvette engines. Boilers for factories, pulp washers for the paper industry, transformers for electric plants. But it is these 83-ton engines for the corvettes and the two 70-ton boilers that accompany each engine which are the most spectacular job in hand.

During the past few months, if you live in the country, you may have seen a most extraordinary spectacle on the railway line. It was a boiler on its way to a corvette from the Inglis plant. To ship these huge iron lungs of a war vessel, the Canadian railroads had to heighten bridges, widen cuts, remove switch apparatus that would have been smashed by the sides of the boilers bulging off the special flat cars. Railroad men had to travel every foot of the right-of-way between Toronto and the point of delivery of these corvette boilers and measure each cut, each siding, each bridge and culvert to make certain the special train could get by. The boilers were shipped by special train consisting of an engine, two flat cars and a caboose. These specials went at special times, on Sundays or other off days, so as to be interfered with as little as possible in their travels.

Corvette Engines

Each boiler weighs 70 tons. Each engine weighs 83 tons. They come into the Inglis plant from the steel mills of the Niagara peninsula, and from the brass foundries of Owen Sound and various other cities in the east as masses of rough metal. Castings of 10 tons such as the bed plate of the engine. Castings of a ton down to a couple of hundred pounds, just great gobs of steel bearing an unsculptured resemblance to the engine part it is to become.

With machine tools the masters of metal set to work to convert the massive gobbets of steel into the parts which in a matter of days or weeks will conform, to the thousandth part of an inch, to the blue prints which lie on their banquet size steel work tables. And so will go together, when assembly starts, into an 83-ton mechanism no less matchlessly perfect than the little Bren guns next door; but monstrous in its power and weight; and all made by the human hand.

It is hard to see where the machine begins, and the human hand leaves off, in industry. But to see these middle-aged metal-masters shaving a 10-ton steel plate with a steel plane is one thing. And to see a crew of them heating the same giant plate over open coke fires, like gipsy bonfires, and then patiently beating it to the scientifically exact curve with tools as antique as the bronze ages, gives you a queer sense of pride that all the little jewelled mills of the Bren gun plant cannot inspire. In the boiler plant, they have pneumatic drills and rivetters; electric welders, torches, things to cut and scorch and bite. The planes they use are 50 feet long, great sliding beds on which the giant steel plates are laid as helpless as butter while the tool steel blades – also made in Canada – slice off the metal as you would whittle cedar, into long, sweet shavings.

But even these immense tools are only tools, and the grimey masters of metal use them in their hands, as men have used tools from time immemorial. The bed plate of the engine, the walls of boiler and condenser, are drilled, the plates shaped, the parts rivetted and secured all by human skill multiplied only as to the power of its blow. The blow is still aimed, gauged, directed and laid by the human hand. Part by part, the engine is machined out of the steel castings. The crankshaft alone, which consists of scores of pieces assembled, sweated and pinned with steel, weighs eight tons when it is lifted into its little place beneath the great cylinders. To start with just massive blocks of steel, vaguely shaped. To end with, a glorious gleaming engine, balanced like a fighter, ready to be dropped into a corvette to drive it bravely to sea.

The Inglis company makes the power plant of the corvette complete, from boiler and condenser to engine and shaft. The three-ton bronze propeller, over ten feet across, is sent to them from the brass foundry in Owen Sound to be fitted to the shaft. That enormous propeller is a magnificent combination of intricate mathematics and mass metal; and it, too, is the work of men’s hands guiding tools, cutting something as artistically perfect as a flower out of an ingot of bronze as big as the room you are sitting in.

It is not possible to go into the detail of the engine, how many revolutions per minute, number of horsepower, speed at which it will drive its ship. From such figures an enemy could calculate what he wants to know in case he meets a corvette at sea. But at every step of its construction, it fulfils the blue prints of the Canadian navy. The plans were supplied the Inglis company by the government. Canadian government men are present, away off at the distant steel mills, at every pouring of steel, to see what goes into it. Those same inspectors see it cooled, take samples of it to test with their chemicals and their instruments. They weigh it, bore it for bubbles, texture. Then they stamp the casting with their mark, and it comes to Toronto. At every stage of its progress, every piece of that engine is inspected and stamped by other Canadian government inspectors. If you look at an engine, you will see on all its pieces, stamped into the metal, a small square bearing the imprint of the technical experts employed by the Canadian navy and by the merchant marine of Canada. As the engine is assembled, each stage is further inspected, so that when the engine is finally given its last test before going to its ship, it bears an ultimate imprint that was tougher to get than any university degree in the world.

Of course what the Inglis plant is doing is only a flicker in the moving picture of Canada’s present war industry, but it is dramatic perhaps because of the element of resurrection. A great many of the men working on these engines have been Inglis men for a quarter century. The firm has been making engines for 80 years. In 1859, John Inglis of Guelph, Ontario, bought from a man in Dundas, Ontario, the right and title to a machine shop for making flour milling equipment. He moved it to Guelph and in 1860 started the manufacture of milling machinery and expanded it with the increasing use of steam engines into a big enterprise that moved, in 1885, to Toronto, on its present site. Engines and boilers were its output. Back in those days there was no electric power in industry, and steam engines provided all the power of factories. The Hamonic and Huronic are two of the ships that bear witness to the fact that ship’s engines were among the things the Inglis firm was master of before the turn of the century. But industrial machinery, power plants, steam plants for electric power, water works pumping machinery and stationary steam plants of all types were its contribution to Toronto’s thriving. From 1903 to 1913, as a steel plate works and milling machinery plant it was capitalized at only $100,000. In 1914 it was recapitalized at a million dollars and went into a wider field of engines. Between 1914 and 1925 the firm did $25,000,000 worth of business. 1935, Mr. William Inglis, who was sole owner, died and the company went into receivership as the family did not desire to continue its operation.

Engineering Enterprise

In due time the present directorate took hold of it as the basis of a program of engineering enterprise, one item of which was the Bren gun. Those who could not see around corners two years ago were stymied by the thought of making Bren guns in a boiler factory and machine shop. But the boiler factory fabricates the plate with which the machine shop busies itself to make the basic machines without which the little machines that make the Bren gun can do nothing. All the old Ross rifle machinery that lay in Canada’s arsenals and much of which today serves perfectly for certain primary steps in the Bren was rehabilitated and made modern in this machine shop. And you will see any amount of the new machinery for the new and ever-newer plants, being created right in the machine shop next door to the boiler plant. Major James Hahn, who served in the same division with me in the last war, only he was an intelligence officer who did the around-the-corner looking for the rest of us, also went to Varsity when I did, only he went to the School of Science while the rest of us took Arts. There were a great many of us who felt very distressed for our old friend the Major two years ago when the Bren subject was up – some of us fresh-water sailors, for the Major loves boats; some of us pistol shooters because the Major is nuts about precision shooting, and 20 years ago, after the old war, had the most incredible collection of hand guns in this part of the world; some of us just contacts who knew him, and knew full well he had learned, as an engineer and a soldier, to look at right angles around corners. We knew he was a manufacturer of radio, one of the early birds in the radio field. And there he was, in that musical merry world of two, three years ago, loaded up with a gun making contract. And everybody on his heels…

ARDENT FRESH-WATER SAILOR and expert on precision shooting, Major James Hahn, president of the John Inglis plant, takes great pride in his extraordinary collection of hand guns.

So it is nice now to see him, as mild-mannered as ever, with his hat over one eye as ever, the easier to scratch the back of your head when thinking, sitting all quiet in the midst of that pandemonium in his great plants in Toronto, and years and months ahead of his promises with guns and engines.

“You see,” he said amiably, “you don’t have to be a gunsmith to make guns. It is perhaps possible you don’t even have to be an engineer to operate an engineering plant. You just have to have common sense. The John Inglis plant has the Canadian rights to certain established engineering works in other parts of the world, a famous British boiler works, an outstanding American pump manufacturer, other American plate and machinery enterprises. Their specifications, experience, even their technical supervision in the person of their experts brought over here, are at the company’s disposal. Here we have the plant. the materials, the technical skill and the labor. Beyond that, what is there? Ordinary business enterprise and plain common-sense.”

And if we may say so, Major, a little foresight – as regards war, for instance.

But the lesson of the story is merely that, as each new week brings the clearer voice of Ottawa warning of the tightening belt of economy, the increasing hours of labor, the wider authority of government over the activity of all and sundry in industry, it is reassuring to be able to see, in this Inglis plant, a demonstration of the speed with which great enterprises can be brought into shape, and the almost limitless variety of ways human energy can be employed, from those furious small machines with all the brains locked up tight in their own insides down to 10-ton steel plates which, over gipsy fires, are beaten into faultless shape by the aimed blows of rugged men. Room, in a word, for everybody to take a grip on the war.

Editor’s Note: John Inglis and Company, as indicated in the article, was purchased by Major J. E. Hahn in 1937. After the war, Inglis entered the consumer products business, including home appliances such as washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers. Whirlpool Corporation acquired a majority interest of Inglis in 1987 and changed the company’s name to Whirlpool Canada in 2001.