John T. Parsons History Project

Institution: Michigan Technological University
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Why This Project Is Important 

John T. Parsons is the inventor of numerical control (NC) machining and that alone makes a history of him and his company of interest. But more than that, the Parsons Corp. was one of the core industries in Traverse City that helped make it an important hub of aerospace and engineering after World War II. The funds raised through Superior Ideas will support travel to the Parsons archive at Virginia Tech, oral histories in Traverse City, and student research and writing on Parsons and Traverse City Industrial History

Project Description 

The John T. Parsons History Project is a historical study of the Parsons Corporation in Traverse City that forms the central story in the history of industrial Traverse City since World War II. Traverse City is of course typically known as a vacationland and cherry growing region, but it has also played an important role in the development of Michigan and national aerospace and related industries.

Parsons is an exceedingly interesting case study of how industrial and engineering supply firms—in this case, Parsons notably made ordnance casings and fins in World War II, then helicopter rotor blades in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s (which is where he developed numerical control [NC] machining), and eventually fiberglass boats for the leisure industry—are often unheralded parts of bigger important stories for the history of engineering that we generally do know about (For example, you may know Sikorski made the helicopter a viable aircraft, but Parsons built the rotor blades for that to happen). Here, Parsons corporation is the perfect linchpin to tell the story of not only the development of NC machining—initially marketed as the Digitron and Cardomatic punch-card systems—but also the multifaceted nature of the Parsons Corp. over the decades and its interaction with federal, military, and consumer industries that is not often told.

John T. Parsons moved an offshoot of his father's Detroit-based automotive parts company to Traverse City during World War II to fulfill military contracts, and there it evolved into numerous branches touching multiple industries. This project might well be called "bombs, blades, and boats" for their main products, but at times they capitalized on their range of industrial skills to venture into such things as built-in-kitchen units, fiberglass fins for the Air Force, and even archery equipment. The development of NC machining in the late 1940s cemented Parsons a notable place in the history of engineering—though there is an interesting competing history with MIT, though Parsons is the one who sublet them the contract from which they then claimed the invention—and this project will explore how NC came about, its contexts in the aerospace (and military-industrial-complex), and its lateral connections in the Parsons corporation and the Traverse City region. The intersection with all the other industries shows how these smaller firms navigated the changing economic, industrial, and consumer demand during the Cold War.

The final product from this project, produced in Summer 2023, will be an illustrated volume of the history of Parsons Corp. and Traverse City Industry. We expect to produce a book of ~100 pages more centrally focused on Parsons (which may then be offered to a commercial press), as well as a shorter magazine-style broad industrial history of Traverse City (perhaps 24pp) that can be used as promotional material for Traverse City itself. There is also an academic article on Parsons as an example of parts supplier, federal contracting, and the growth and diversification of American manufacturing after WWII tat will come out of this once these other products are finished.

Skilled Manufacturing Incorporated - Aero Division (SMI Aero) of Traverse City has pledged a match on donations received up to $5,000.

Meet the Researcher

Steven Walton

Steven Walton is an associate professor of history at Michigan Tech. He specializes in the history of technology and science, and often on topics related to military-industrial production. He holds a PhD and MA in history and philosophy of science and technology from the Univ. of Toronto, and a BS and MS in mechanical engineering from Cornell and Caltech, respectively.

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of $15,000 fund goal
The average donation for this project is $2000
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What Your Donation Can Help Us Do: 

  • All of Parsons' papers – 250+ bankers boxes worth – are at Virginia Tech, and your contribution will support graduate students and faculty for travel to and time spent in these archives, as well in Traverse City, and in writing a book and various promotions of Traverse City's industrial history.
  • We will be sending a graduate student down to Virginia Tech this fall (and, with your support, once again in the spring) to continue diving into this under-catalogued collection (i.e., it’s a treasure hunt at times!). They will be photographing sections of this huge archive to bring back for others students to develop the story, namely:
  • Funds will support students in writing modular stories of this history from the Virginia Tech materials as well as further period sources, and also expand the scope to other Traverse City companies that worked alongside Parsons Corp. (Cone-Drive is one such example), and those that have come in its wake.
  • We also, again with your kind support, hope to be sending students to Traverse City over term breaks to conduct interviews with those who have worked for Parsons Corp. or other companies during this heyday of high tech aerospace industry.
  • Remaining funds will be used to produce both the short- and long-form histories of "Industrial Traverse City" and to develop facsimiles of the primary documents for use in pre-collegiate STEM encouragement (what is now being referred to as 'Humanities Driven STEM, or HD-STEM).

$50 (3/50)

Signed book of the Parsons History

Skilled Manufacturing Incorporated - Aero Division (SMI Aero) of Traverse City has pledged a match on donations received up to $5,000.

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Gifts to projects listed on SUPERIORIDEAS.ORG are received and processed by Michigan Tech Fund. Michigan Tech Fund is a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code acting on behalf of Michigan Technological University. It is the policy of Michigan Tech Fund that a portion of the gifts and/or income therefrom may be used to defray the costs of raising and administering the funds.