Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

July 25th, 2008:

John Frier: American Inventor

I have a very popular Web page devoted to Hi-Flier kites, and it generates more mail than anything else on my site except Contra. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Nancy Frier, introducing herself as the granddaughter of John Frier, founder of Alox Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis. Alox was one of three companies that mass-produced paper kites for the toy market in the 20th century, the others being Crunden-Martin (TopFlite) and Hi-Flier. I flew a few Alox kites when I was a kid, but they were not available at Bud's Hardware, so I could only get them when I was somehow at farther stores like Walgreen's or Kresge's. Nancy had seen my Hi-Flier page (which mentions Alox kites briefly) and offered to provide more information on Alox and the remarkable man behind it. Earlier this week, I took advantage of a fluky chance to meet her while she was traveling from Wisconsin to St. Louis, and we lunched outside of Rockford.

Whoa. I've been at some interesting lunch meetings in my time (and I've had breakfast with Isaac Asimov and dinner with Steve Ballmer) but this one was amazing. Almost all my information about Hi-Flier is second or third hand. Nancy was there. She had worked at Alox since she was a teenager. She actually made the kites, and by “made” I mean that literally: She fed sheets of paper and plastic into the special printing presses, and pushed the buttons. She worked the jig that stretched out a diamond of waxed string over the cut kite sails, and then folded and glued the edge tabs of the sails over the string. (This last machine was Frier's own invention, and he held patent #3,330,511 on it.) She worked for Alox until the company folded in 1989. She still has the copper letterpress plates from which Alox kites were printed, and she had one in the back seat to show me. (Below; photographed on her car window sun-screen.) And before she continued on to St. Louis, she handed me an armful of Alox kites, some of which dated back to the early 1950s. The kites were much appreciated—and I'm working on an article about Alox kites—but what really made the meeting was hearing about John Frier himself.

Born in 1896, Frier had a restless mind, of the sort that demands to know how things work and constantly tries to figure out better ways to go about them. He was fascinated by things that flew, and in 1912, when he was 17, he built an airframe with a wingspan of about 20 feet in his parents' shed outside of St. Louis. He called it a glider, but it was clearly built to accept an engine (she showed me photos) and it was certainly large enough to carry a pilot. Way cool—but then she pulled something else out of her briefcase: A letter to John from the chief counsel of the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which threatened poor teenaged John with a patent lawsuit unless he ceased making flying machines that infringed on several unspecified Curtiss patents. Frier ignored the letter, but the following year the shed caught fire under mysterious circumstances and took the plane with it, all before John and one of his friends could complete and launch it.

John Frier served in WWI, and when he got home he returned to his main business of having ideas. One of them was a way to keep shoelaces from unraveling at the ends. Although other things had been tried, Frier's method looks a great deal like the stiff plastic ends you see to this day. (His were made of thin metal.) He obtained patent #1,318,745 in 1919, and created a company to manufacture and sell shoelaces. He named the company Alox because it was different from all other local manufacturing concerns in St. Louis—and would be right at the front of the phone book, which at that time was more of a phone pamphlet. Alox cranked out shoelaces for decades, and at least until WWII it was their core product line.

Soon after founding Alox, Frier began manufacturing and selling paper and later plastic kites for children. Nancy gave me a great deal of information and photos concerning Alox kites, but I don't have a scanner here with me and can't show you anything right now. I'll be doing a detailed article on Alox kites once I get back to Colorado, so stay tuned.

Alox is actually better known among marble collectors than kite collectors. Frier liked making toys, and in addition to kites Alox manufactured yoyos, jacks sets, jump ropes (which, after all, are basically large shoelaces with wooden ends) and Chinese checkers sets. At first he bought the marbles for Chinese checkers on an OEM basis from other companies whose sole business was marble manufacturing, but the common practice of bringing a box of marbles “up to weight” by throwing in pieces of broken glass enraged him. He bought several marble-making machines from one of his former suppliers and began making the marbles himself, at first for his Chinese checkers and Tit Tat Toe games, and later as a separate product line. The marble machines were crude (and incorporated mechanical oddities like transmissions from 1920s Hupmobiles) but John and his staffers slowly improved them, and he soon pretty much owned the US marble market. He bought cullet glass from glass manufacturers to melt into marbles, but also bought empty glass bottles in various colors on the scrap market and melted those as well. (Alox's blue marbles had mostly been Milk of Magnesia bottles.) The machines ran 24/7 because it took several days and a lot of fuel oil to bring a batch of glass to full melt, and when John Frier shut down marble production in the late 1940s, it was mostly because keeping a marble factory running all the time was a nuisance. He was the CEO, but he was also the only guy who could troubleshoot the cranky marble machines, and he liked to sleep at night undisturbed by frantic calls from his foremen.

Nancy's final revelation about the Alox product line was the most fun of all: John Frier and Alox made UFOs. Shortly after WWII, Alox got the contract to construct balloon-borne radar targets for the Army Signal Corps. Alox had built thousands of ML307C/AP target devices, starting in early 1947. One of the most famous late-40's “UFO debris” photos clearly shows an ML307, as vehemently as the UFO gang has tried to deny it. Nancy had an Alox-built ML307 target in the back seat, and it was a difficult thing to photograph well, especially in a parking lot. It has a lot in common with a box kite, in that it's a corner reflector designed to fold flat.

I'm running on longer than I generally allow myself in this space, but it was great fun and a wonderful look at a period in American history when almost anything was possible. Nancy handed me a lot of material, and once I get home and get an article put together, I'll link to it here. The kites are much too old to fly (obviously) but they will take a place of honor on my workshop wall, along with the Hi-Fliers already hanging there. Nancy is considering printing and making reproduction Alox kites from the original copper plates, if she can find suitable paper and a press that can do the job. (I know very little about letterpress printing and can't help much there; if you have suggestions I think we'd both like to hear them.) I've been hoping for years that someone would begin making paper kites for the nostalgia market, and with any luck we may still get there. More as I learn it.