CHICAGO (June 22, 10:30 a.m. EDT) — F. Reed Estabrook experienced the reciprocating screw revolution first-hand, as co-founder of Brook Molding Co. in the 1950s.
William H. Willert invented the screw in 1952. Because of its ability to melt and mix a large amount of plastic quickly, the screw was light years ahead of the old plunger system.
Estabrook, 84, said the plunger machines used heater bands and a heated torpedo to melt plastic. But “melt” was a generous description. “If you had a bucket of tar and just tried to push it, it wouldn't do much. But if you got the tar hot, why, it would go like hell. And that's basically what [the screw] did,” he said.
Bucket of tar came out “bucket of tah” in Estabrook's Boston accent, as he sat recently at the kitchen table of his home in Dedham, Mass., recalling the early days of plastics. Nancy, his wife of more than 60 years, chimed in with her own memories of events with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and Society of Plastics Engineers.
The industry was much smaller back then. At SPI meetings, everyone played golf or tennis. “It was just wonderful fun, and it created a wonderful atmosphere in the whole industry,” Nancy Estabrook said as she dug through an old photo album.
The socializing was more than fun and games, however. In the 1940s and 1950s, molding companies were run by hands-on owners. New materials were coming out. Thermoplastics were displacing the era of thermosets. At Brook Molding, “I was chief engineer as well as being president,” Estabrook recalled. People were hungry for information.
Friendships developed. “We were a smaller industry and we had to fight our way against the metals people, things like that,” Estabrook said.
There were other threats. In the 1950s, Estabrook worked closely with SPI President Bill Cruse to counteract a scare about the potential for infant crib deaths attributed to plastic mattress covers, and false charges over flammability of some plastic products. Through his career, he was chairman of SPI's Public Affairs Committee, and also served on the national board of directors and the executive committee.
He joined SPE in 1946, working with the Southern New England Section and the Injection Molding Division.
Estabrook backed into his first plastics job during the Great Depression. He attended Harvard for one year — as a classmate of future President John F. Kennedy — but had to leave in 1937. “We ran into money problems and a few other problems, so I was only there for a year,” he said.
He got a summer job at a yacht club. It turned out that the president of Gorham Co. in Providence, R.I., had a summer house across the street. “I was there seven days a week, and every morning the flag went up at 8 and came down at sunset. And so the president of Gorham called me up and said, 'Come see me.' That's how I got into the plastics division of the Gorham Co.,” he said.
In 1937, he began at Gorham as a press operator and set-up man at the bronze foundry and metals molder. The company was experimenting with phenolic and urea resins, and Estabrook became a toolmaker. He pioneered the use of beryllium copper for molds for running thermosets. One early plastic product was a hair-dryer hood.
But Gorham ended up closing its plastics division to dedicate production to metal products for the British war effort. Estabrook had caught the plastics bug, so in 1940 he got a job at Northern Industrial Chemical in South Boston. He quickly became involved in developing many plastic products for the British war effort, soon to be joined by the United States: phenolic field telephones and electrical boxes and telephone equipment for war ships. He spearheaded the creation of special insulators for engine ignition systems for the Spitfire plane.
After marrying Nancy, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was a commander pilot for the B-17, B-24 and B-32 bombers, but he never saw any combat. “We trained all over the United States,” he said. Once the war ended, he returned to Northern Industrial Chemical. He developed a line of melamine dinnerware, then expanded the company's efforts in the new arena of thermoplastic molding.
He rose to the position of vice president and general manager.
Northern Industrial, an early member of SPI, encouraged Estabrook to get involved with the SPI's New England Division.
In 1955, he co-founded Brook Molding in Norwood, Mass. “Brook Molding followed what I'd learned at Northern Industrial Chemical. And that is, we were doing compression molding and we were doing injection molding. We were dealing with compression molding for phenolics and ureas and some of the polyesters and so forth. And then in all of the thermoplastics that were going through [reciprocating screw] injection machines, and it was a hell of a lot better going through a screw injection than it was a plunger injection, just a piston,” he said.
Brook Molding converted to screw machines in just three or four years. The improvement was especially dramatic with exotic thermoplastics, like nylon. Brook pioneered nylon plastic gears through a division, Precision Molded Gearing Corp. The company caught the attention of the American Gear Manufacturing Association, whose member companies' “plastic gear” efforts were limited to cutting gears manually from blanks of laminated layers of phenolics and woven fabrics. Many gears were made of metal.
Estabrook joined AGMA and founded its Plastics Gearing Committee, serving as chairman for 15 years. He served two terms on AGMA's national board.
He sold Brook Molding and Precision Molded Gearing in 1978, then established a consulting business, TAIM Corp., which stands for turnkey automated insert molding.
These days, he remains active in the Plastics Pioneers Association. He continues a long-time involvement on the board of Avon Old Farms School, a private high school in Avon, Conn., where he graduated in 1936.
Reed and Nancy Estabrook keep busy around their house. In their spacious back yard, gardens flow down terraces overlooking the Charles River.
Always the engineer, he installed the automatic watering system. “Brookie,” as his wife calls him, proudly points to the garage he built.
Estabrook has enjoyed his long plastics career. “It was good fun,” he said.