Fairchild, Part 1

Written by Bill Leebens

I truly enjoy the research involved in these pieces, refreshing faded memories, absorbing facts overlooked or misunderstood in my youth, and especially—ending up somewhere completely unexpected. That’s how I came to look into Fairchild, while writing in Copper #66 about phono cartridges and Joe Grado, whose company is still around in Brooklyn. Grado began in audio by building cartridges for Fairchilld; to quote myself, “Grado was an opera singer, watchmaker and inventor; he was also a friend of hi-fi pioneer Saul Marantz, who introduced Grado to Sherman Fairchild.

“Fairchild was a multimillionaire serial entrepreneur who founded dozens of companies in many  fields including aircraft, aerial photography, and the Fairchild Recording Equipment Corporation, devoted to products for professional and broadcast audio. The Recording Equipment Corporation, based in Long Island City,  also dabbled in home hi-fi—and that’s where Grado went.”

It’s not often that one encounters a “multimillionaire serial entrepreneur” while researching audio. In fact, I think I can count the ones I’ve come across on one finger—namely, Sherman Mills Fairchild.  

So who was he?

Sherman Mills Fairchild was born April 7, 1896 in Oneonta, New York, the child of George Winthrop Fairchild and Josephine Mills Sherman Fairchild. At the time of his son’s birth, Father Fairchild was involved in the weekly newspaper, the Oneonta Herald, and was also a partner in Bundy Manufacturing, a maker of timeclocks. In 1907, Fairchild was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served until 1919. A few years later, in 1911, Fairchild became president of a newly-formed company with the lengthy name of  The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company; he was also a delegate to the 1912 and 1916 Republican National conventions.

In short, George Fairchild was both a man of means, and a man of influence. In 1924, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company was renamed  International Business Machines—yes, IBM. Fairchild was the company’s Chairman and largest single shareholder at the time of his death on December 31st, 1924. His wife had passed away in January of that same year, and Sherman was an only child. At age 28, Sherman Fairchild was left as the largest single shareholder in IBM, which would be true until his death in 1971.

But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, and skipped Sherman’s early life.

By all accounts, Sherman was extremely bright, and his family’s position allowed him to have the best education possible: in 1915, he headed to Harvard. During his freshman year there, Fairchild developed a camera with synchronized shutter and flash—an invention that would change his life, and the world. Fairchild came down with pneumonia, and moved to the drier climes of Arizona, where he attended the University of Arizona and increased his involvement in photography.

By 1917, Fairchild had developed an aerial camera which contained the shutter within the lens itself, designed to overcome the shutter lag that caused blurring in most aerial photographs. Fairchild and his father—the Congressman— secured a contract to develop the aerial camera for the military, along with $7,000 in funding. The actual developmental costs were $40,000; the elder Fairchild paid the difference.

As the World War drew to a close, the military’s need for the aerial camera diminished. Undeterred, Fairchild established the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920 to produce the camera, and sold 20 to the Army. Fairchild  took a camera aloft in a Fokker biplane to produce aerial images of Manhattan, and in 1921, Fairchild Aerial Surveys was formed to commercialize aerial mapping and surveying. Newark, New Jersey was the first major city completely mapped by means of aerial photography. By 1923, a Canadian branch, Fairchild Aerial Surveys of Canada, had been founded  to capitalize upon the need to map the vast uncharted areas of that country.

Following his father’s death, Fairchild was appointed as a director of IBM, and also joined the board of an air transport company owned by Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American Airways. Characteristically, in 1925 he also founded Fairchild Aviation Corporation as a holding company to manage companies producing aircraft engines and airframes designed specifically for aerial photography, having found surplus biplanes inadequate for that purpose. Fairchild never shied away from starting new business entities to develop his ideas; unlike most serial entrepreneurs, he was successful at—well, being successful. Few, if any, of his dozens of ventures failed.

Within the next few years, Fairchild monoplanes would become known as the most advanced planes in the air, used to fly Lindbergh on his nationwide tour, and utilized by Commander Richard Byrd in his first flights over Antarctica. The versatility and cargo capacity of Fairchild monoplanes help save Trippe’s struggling Pan Am by enabling the airline to become a major carrier of air mail. Within a span of months, production of the FC-1 mapping airship and its production derivative FC-2 made Fairchild Aviation the second largest producer of aircraft in the world.

The elegantly simple FC-2.

In the turbulent year 1929, Fairchild Aviation acquired controlling interest in Kreider-Reisner Aircraft, and buit new manufacturing facilities in Hagerstown, Maryland, where eventually, all aircraft production would be consolidated. In the years that followed, acquisitions, divestitures, and repurchases of aircraft companies would make the company’s many divisions hard to track.

And yet, photography remained at the heart of everything. Fairchild developed products to improve all aspects of image production, processing, and reproduction, from filmholders, multiple generations of both still and motion picture cameras, processing frames and tanks, contact printers, projectors, and so on. Perhaps spurred on by the rapid growth of talking films, in 1931, the Fairchild Recording Equipment Corporation was founded in Whitestone, New York, with the goal of producing sound recordings of quality equal to Fairchild’s motion pictures.

We’ll pick up the story of Fairchild in the audio world in the next issue of Copper. 

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