Learning from InvENtors: Robert Paxton McCulloch

Learning from InvENtors: Robert Paxton McCulloch

In this edition of Learning from InvENtors, we’re sharing the story of an innovator who, quite literally, built bridges (among other things)…Robert Paxton McCulloch.

Robert Paxton McCulloch was a true American entrepreneur.

During his lifetime, he helped mechanize the whole forest industry by the introduction of the first light-weight chainsaw, made a fortune on manufacturing turbochargers for the car industry, and founded four cities.

Most spectacularly, however, he bought the original London Bridge and moved it to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., a city he had founded while exploring oil fields in the area. Yes, you read that correctly – he bought and MOVED the London Bridge.

Before we cross that bridge, (pun intended), let’s explore a bit about McCulloch’s early life…

Robert Paxton McCulloch was born on May 11, 1911, in Missouri, as the second child of three. In 1925, McCulloch and his siblings inherited a fortune from their late grandfather, who, among other things, had worked for Thomas Edison, implementing his power plants all over the world.

After graduating with an engineering degree from Stanford University, Robert married Barbra Ann Briggs (whose father was Stephen F. Briggs of Briggs & Stratton).

Building Businesses

McCulloch started his first business, The McCulloch Engineering Company, with his inheritance money. The company produced racing engines and superchargers and soon proved very successful and was located in Milwaukee, Wis., the city where his grandfather made millions as an early pioneer of electric utilities and manufacturer of electric trolleys.

McCulloch hired on a number of engineers at the firm, including Francis L. Colburn, who designed a simple, easy-to-install centrifugal supercharger. While superchargers were not a new invention, Colburn’s designs redefined them.

McCulloch began offering the superchargers as kits for Ford’s flathead V-8 engine, advertising them to truck owners as well as racers and owners of everyday street-driven cars. The crankshaft-driven supercharger had a fixed 6:1 ratio and was seated horizontally between the carburetor and intake manifold. McCulloch first offered the kit in 1937; by 1942, his sales topped $3 million, making him the second-largest supercharger manufacturer behind General Motors.

A year later, McCulloch sold McCulloch Engineering to Borg-Warner for $1 million. He started a new company, McCulloch Aviation, to build drone planes, powered by lightweight two-cycle engines, for the war effort, but continued to develop his supercharger. In fact, between March, 1942, and December, 1943, he applied for no less than seven patents relating to a new type of blower–still crankshaft-driven, but more compact and with better low-RPM boost capabilities.

In 1946, McCulloch moved his company to California, changed its name to McCulloch Motors, and changed its focus to lightweight two-cycle chainsaws.

He did some development work for Kaiser-Frazer at the time, but didn’t return to the automotive field until 1953, when he launched the VS57 supercharger, the result of those earlier patents.

By 1957, McCulloch had set up a separate division within the company to produce the superchargers under the Paxton name. In 1958, McCulloch sold the Paxton division and, once again, changed the name of his company to the McCulloch Corporation. He also changed focus once more–to outboard motors.

About “RP”

“He was a genius,” says McCulloch’s Michael. “He was astute at building and invention; he designed engines – that was his forte.

McCulloch, who was known to his grandchildren as RP, never lost his temper and was fun to be around, Michael says. He was something of a character who kept odd hours, working late into the night and sleeping until noon.

McCulloch was a man who fizzed with ideas and was often found tinkering at his holiday house in Palm Springs. It was a place of innovation, where the mundane became fascinating.

Drawers did not hold typical domestic trappings – they slid open to reveal chilled cocktail glasses. Such quirks led to Life magazine dubbing the country club home a “push-button paradise” in 1956.

“It was way, way before its time,” says Michael. “Everything was electronic. All the doors, all the drawers, everything opened by pushing buttons or by sliding a toggle. There were features that would turn on the coffee [machine] or the bath or the steam room at whatever time you wanted. All the lighting was controlled by a master panel. No other house had that.”

McCulloch was constantly looking for ways to make life easier.

“It was just something he did for fun. He was a very smart, creative person that needed to keep inventing.”

It was this compulsion, coupled with good business acumen, that led to his next project. With nowhere to test his boat engines in land-locked eastern California, he hopped over the border into Arizona in search of water and created a community.

From the air, McCulloch spotted the ribbon of Havasu’s lake, snaking through a parcel of land flanked by the Chemehuevi, Whipple and Mojave Mountains.

“They noticed it was a really, really beautiful place,” says Michael. “They took a look around, offered $76 an acre and started building.

“He realized there was a huge opportunity there.”

At the same time, halfway across the world, there was another problem…

The Bridge House Estates committee of the City of London Common Council had known for some time London Bridge was sinking further into the River Thames with every passing rush hour.

Horse-drawn carriages had long since made way for cars and double-decker buses and, over the years, the structure had been hammered deeper into the riverbed.

The obvious solution to members in 1965, was to demolish it and start again; build a new bridge, for a new era of commuters.

Former newspaper and PR man Ivan Luckin had other ideas.

“He thought it was all very well knocking it down, but what about its future?” says former counselor, Archie Galloway. “That’s when Ivan made his move. He said to the committee, ‘we ought to sell it’.

“A lot of eyebrows went up at that.”

Luckin wanted to go a step further and advertise in the United States, where he felt certain someone would be interested in buying a well-known London landmark.

“Someone sensibly asked what they might get for [the bridge] and Ivan is recorded as saying, ‘one million’,” says Archie.“And they said, ‘one million dollars?’

“Ivan said, ‘I’m talking about one million pounds.’ [Nearly three millions dollars at the time.] They sat up at that.”

News of the sale was soon the subject of newspaper and TV reports trotting out the inevitable line that London Bridge “was falling down.”

Luckin’s glossy 40-page brochure for prospective buyers promoted not only the structure itself, but the chance to own a slice of history – a bridge had crossed the Thames in this part of London since Roman times.

It was this potential that inspired McCulloch and his business partner, Cornelius Vanderbilt “CV” Wood, who was known for designing Disneyland in California.

McCulloch & Wood

Either way, Luckin’s perseverance paid off and when the ink dried on the contract of sale on April 18, 1968, he was a man vindicated – his outlandish idea matched only by an even more ludicrous one.


Almost as soon as the deal was done, nine-year-old Michael McCulloch was marched to the principal’s office.

“He said to me, ‘I just heard your grandfather bought London Bridge’.

“I said, ‘the one in the song?’ And he said, ‘yeah’.

“And I said, ‘OK’, then went back to class.

“When I got home I asked my mom.

“She said, ‘yes, RP’s bought London Bridge and he’s going to move it out to Lake Havasu City’.”


Those who moved to Lake Havasu between 1964 and 1974 called themselves pioneers – a nod to their 19th Century forefathers who traveled westwards in wagons in search of a better life.

The town had one stop sign, two roads and 600 inhabitants.

By the end of 1965, the elementary school had acquired two new classes, and a grocery store had opened its doors. The real change, however, came in 1968, when news trickled back to this tiny desert “city” that its founder had made a bizarre purchase.

“The whole economics of the place and the attitude of the town changed overnight,” says Rick Kingsbury who had moved to the town in 1965. “It was like a rocket ship, it took off and went crazy. In the three years it took to build the bridge, the population tripled.

Lake Havasu’s growth was in part down to dynamic marketing of the American dream – the promise of a better (and sunnier) life.

“RP started doing commercials and advertising in the Midwest where it was freezing,” says Michael.

“He purchased a bunch of planes and started flying people out on free flights. They were treated like kings. They were put up in a beautiful hotel for two or three days, had all their meals paid for and all they had to do was go on a tour for a couple of hours. And it worked like a charm. They sold a lot of those homes that way.”

Before April of 1968, few people knew where Lake Havasu City was, but news of the sale made international headlines and gave the tiny desert community a high profile, but that was before a little matter concerning the London Bridge…

“There were lots of articles that described RP as crazy,” says Michael. “Then that changed – to crazy like a fox. People couldn’t conceptualize it… take this bridge in London and put it in the middle of the desert?”

English expat Linda Binder felt similarly when she heard the bridge she had often walked across as a child was moving. “I saw in the papers McCulloch was buying London Bridge and I thought, ‘what are those crazy Yanks doing building a bridge on sand? But I think he did an extraordinary job of bringing it over and having the foresight to bring it brick by brick and rebuild it with the city around it. I mean, who does that?”

Years later, Binder moved to Lake Havasu where she became an Arizona state senator and, for many years, the point of contact for British dignitaries visiting the new city.

First the bridge, THEN the river?

Binder’s husband, Bill, recalls how his friend, CV Wood, had to get permission from the President of the United States to create a channel under London Bridge.

“Woody told me the [plan] was to build the bridge on dry land and dredge it out, but they applied for a permit and got denied,” says Bill.

Wood was told such permission could be only be granted by the highest authority in the land, so he used his connections to secure a 10-minute audience with Lyndon Johnson, only to be told by the president: “Sorry, you can’t set this precedent. You can’t move a river.”

“Woody said the pressure was really on,” says Bill. “He was a Texas boy and so was Johnson, so he started talking with this Texan accent. He said ‘by golly, the next time someone buys London Bridge and moves it to the US, well, you’ll have to move another damn river’. Johnson looked at Woody and said, ‘sign it’ [to an aide about the necessary paperwork] and left the room.”

“The reality is RP was an engineer, an entrepreneur,” says Michael. “But CV, he was a showman; he could sell ice to Eskimos. That’s why they were so good together. They made a good pair.”

(Re-) Building a Bridge

The first stone arrived in Lake Havasu on July 9, 1968, its swift delivery in part because work had begun to take it down long before McCulloch had signed a check for $2.46m.

Alan Saines numbered the pieces as they came off the bridge in London.

Alan Saines was 17 when he got his first job, taking down the bridge

“There was only me numbering them and there were hundreds. If we did 20 a week, we were lucky. It wasn’t a case of smashing it; the [stones] had to be taken down carefully and stored carefully and all the time they were building the new bridge.”

Alan Simpson worked on the design of the new bridge for engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson. He said the old bridge came down in slices to make room for the new one.

“The only way of doing it was to take down one side of the old bridge so there was just room for the new bridge, then move over to the other side, switch the traffic, then take down the rest of the bridge in the middle and tie [it] back together. It was complicated. And it wasn’t until fairly late in the day that taking it all down carefully to ship halfway around the world became an additional requirement.”

The stones were sent to Surrey Docks, where fellow Mott engineer, Bernard Waterworth, would consult a long-range telescopic photo of the bridge and direct some pieces onto freighters bound for Long Beach, Calif., via the Panama Canal.

“It was an historic monument and you were aware it was unusual,” explains Waterworth. “You don’t forget it – projects like that are few and far between.”

About 10,600 stones arrived in Lake Havasu, making the final leg of the journey by road on flatbed trucks. The cornerstone was laid on September 23, 1968, in a ceremony attended by London’s lord mayor.

Then work to resurrect the bridge began, starting with the arches, which were laid across the sand.

The rest was built around the framework in reinforced concrete. To avoid the sinking fate of its 133,000-ton predecessor, it was made hollow and finished with a veneer of stone, making it 33,000 tons.

“It almost felt like I was in a movie,” says former laborer Roy Martin, who helped winch the stones. “People were always coming up to us and asking questions, wanting to take pictures and wanting to know if we had any extra pieces they could take home as souvenirs.”

The stones were maneuvered in by hand and secured with pins, wire and concrete. The work was slow and laborious – crews had to force the 400-500 lb pieces in one at a time. On a good day they’d get through 10; the worst was one.

If a stone was too damaged to use, it had to be replaced, says Harvey Robertson, who laid steps on the south side of the bridge. But the local rock didn’t match that which had been blackened by a century of London pollution.

“It was a lighter color, so they had these kerosene burners making soot,” he recalls. “Then they painted it on there to make it look dark and weathered, so people wouldn’t know they weren’t the original stones.”

Once the bridge was up, the dunes were sucked out of the arches to make way for the president-approved channel. The land underneath the structure was dredged, allowing London Bridge to tower above a waterway for the first time since it had left Britain.

“I remember thinking at the time McCulloch had more money than sense,” says Robertson. “But once I started working on it, I thought he was pretty much a genius.”

McCulloch’s Legacy

Six years after the bridge was completed, McCulloch died. His death was keenly felt in the community he had built, where his legacy is remembered with a bronze statue and a road bearing his name.

According to the state tourist board, 3.65 million people visited London Bridge in 2017 – making it Arizona’s third most popular attraction after the Grand Canyon and the Glen Canyon national parks.

McCulloch’s grandson Michael says people come because they’re “curious”.

It’s a word that sums up Lake Havasu perfectly.

Driving in from Highway 95, the billboards scream “Visit the home of the London Bridge.” Before long, a flash of blue appears – not a desert mirage, but the waters of the Colorado River filling the city’s man-made lake up ahead. Then before you know it, the bridge appears, dominating a landscape peppered with fast food outlets, hotels and palm trees.

It’s a surreal moment, even though you’ve been warned what to expect.

For the 52,000 residents that call Lake Havasu City home, the bridge is just a part of everyday life, providing the only access to and from the marina and the homes perched on the first spit of land purchased by McCulloch back in 1958.

And although the whole project cost about $12m, McCulloch is said to have recouped his costs before the last brick had even been laid in its new home.

That a sinking bridge in London would be the making of a city in Arizona is a testament to McCulloch. But that it became such a success is down to boldness, determination and belief – a reflection, perhaps, of the American spirit.

“The bridge changed things immensely, I don’t know what the city would be like if it wasn’t here,” reflects Michael.

“It was [supposed to be] a retirement resort but it’s turned into a sustainable economy and a lot of people are born here and have chosen not to leave.

“I think RP would be amazed by that.”


Sources:

The McCulloch Story. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.mcculloch.com/uk/about/the-mcculloch-story/

Potts, L. (2018, September 24). The Bridge that Crossed an Ocean (and the man that moved it) [Web log post]. Retrieved September 26, 2018, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/the_bridge_that_crossed_an_ocean

Strohl, D. (2010, January). Robert Paxton McCulloch: He brought the London Bridge to Arizona, and superchargers to street-driven cars. [Web log post]. Retrieved September 25, 2018 from https://www.hemmings.com/magazine/mus/2010/01/Robert-Paxton-McCulloch/2626541.html

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