Robert Crooks Stanley (1876-1951) – The Grandfather of the Nickel Industry (Part 1 of 2)

This backgrounder was written by Ken Cherney and researched by Ron Orasi for Inco Limited employees worldwide in August 1989. Please note that this backgrounder is from the company perspective. Many controversial issues have been omitted however it is still a valuable historical document.

It is rare for history to record the accomplishments, drive and leadership of a single person in the development of an industry. Robert Crooks Stanley was such a man.

His achievements, spanning 50 years form the turn of the century, led to Inco’s emergence as one of the world’s leading mining and metallurgical enerprices.

Stanley’s energy, ingenuity and expertise steered Inco and its predecessor companies through the development of nickel and nickel alloys in an era that initially viewed nickel as a troublesome contamination of the copper ores of Sudbury rather than a useful commodity. In fact, nickel has come to take its place on both industry and consumer fronts as a metal that is integral to today’s high standard of living.

Carrying the Ball

Stanley (1876-1951) was born in Little Falls, New Jersey. During his high school days at nearby Montclair, he found time to play football and was an outstanding back. A 1940 edition of Forbes Magazine aptly: “Bob Stanley, though short, was well-knit and game as a pebble. Hence he won the job as right end and ball carrier on the Montclair, N.J. High School football team. He has been carrying the ball ever since.”

Stanley received a mechanical engineering degree at Stevens Institute of Technology in 1899. In order to finance his education he returned to Montclair High School as an instructor of manual training. He kept up his studies and in 1901 was granted a degree in mine engineering at Columbia School of Mines in New York. Over the years, Stanley was to be granted four honourary doctorate degrees by universities in recognition of his achievements.

After graduating from Columbia he worked for S. S. White Dental Company where he conducted experiments on the strength of palladium and gold alloys. Albert W. Johnston, an officer of the dental company, became an officer of the Orford Copper Company, a predecessor Company of Inco. He brought Stanley with him.

In 1902, the Orford Copper Company and the American Nickel Company, along with other smaller constituents, joined forces to form  a new organization then called International Nickel.

Transferred to Bayonne

In 1904, Stanley transferred to the Company’s plant in Constable Hook (now Bayonne, New Jersey) as assistant general superintendent. Here, he authored the letter that was to launch his career in metallurgy and mining and trigger the development of new alloys and a company to make them. He wrote:

The Orford Copper Company
43 Exchange Place
New York, N.Y.
Mr. F.S. Jordan

Dear Sir: Will you kindly make requisition to the Canadian Copper Company Co., for one car Bessemer matte free from iron, or blown down as low iron content as possible. We wish this for experimental purposes and would like same as soon as possible.

(signed) Robert C. Stanley

The matte, a semi-processed product with about 10 per cent nickel content, arrived and Stanley went to work. In 1905 he developed an alloy later to be named Monel, (Trademark of the Inco family of companies. Note – All dollar figures in U.S. currency.) a product that has been one mainstay alloy where strength, corrosion resistance and appearance are requisites. Twenty years later he patented an improved process for Monel refining, known as the Stanley process. In the interim, however, serious consideration had to be given to the manufacture and marketing of this newly-discovered alloy. The decision was reached to develop an alloy facility and in 1921 ground was broken in Huntingtion, West Virginia for a new plant. Today, this plant of Inco Alloys International, Inc.

Although Stanley’s mining achievements are shadowed by his metallurgical prowess, his activity in this field is recognized as significant. Early in his career, in the Spring of 1904, a syndicate composed principally of directors of Inco sent him to the northern end of Lake Timiskaming in Ontario, Canada to investigate reports of silver discoveries.

His enthusiastic recommendation led to the development of the Nipissing Mine, the first important mine in the Cobalt area. When the Porcupine area to the north was opened, his report on one of the properties there was the determining factor in the purchase of the Dome Mine by a similar syndicate. His investigation and report on a mine in the Illinois coal field led to its purchase and developing for coking coal.

War-time Demands

Becoming General Superintendent of the Orford Works in 1912, Stanley was in charge of this important source of refined nickel during the First World War. His resourcefulness and leadership were greatly responsible for the success of this plant in stepping up production to meet wartime demands. In fact, output of nickel nearly doubled to 76 million punds. And every pound of nickel was needed. At the time, the Nelson and Rodney, first-class British battleships, weighing in at 34,000 tones, each contained about 250 tons of nickel.

In 1917, at the age of 41, Robert Stanley was elected a Director of Inco. Soon he was made Vice-President in Charge of All Operations and moved to the Company’s executive offices in New York. This new position gave him the opportunity to reorganize and strengthen the Company’s mining and smelting operations in the Sudbury District and to move refining operations from Bayonne, New Jersey to a new nickel refinery in Port Colborne, Ontario.

Industry’s Lowest Ebb

After the war, Stanley found himself, along with the industry he had helped develop, in a precarious position. The nickel industry was at its lowest ebb. By 1922 nickel consumption had almost disappeared. Nickel, a crucial commodity for the wartime effort, had yet to find its rightful position, removed and distinct from wartime activities. Stanley’s sentiments were captured in a 1934 Fortune Magazine article: “Thank God, we don’t have to depend on that business (war) any more.”

It was time for Stanley to establish a new engineering and technical department, one to maintain field relationships with users and producers of nickel products and for the purpose of educating industry to a wider and more diversified utilization of nickel. Also, it was invested with the task of developing new products. Under Stanley’s direction, Inco became one of the first company’s in North America to pursue research vigorously.

Although the department would make no actual sales, it was hoped that its activity would result in a greater inflow of orders to producers of products containing nickel. It did.

Aided by the quickening pace of engineering development, Stanley’s program proved increasingly successful. Thousands of commercial applications for nickel were established and enlargement and diversification of world markets were obtained.

In his book For the Years to Come, Inco Chairman John F. Thompson (who succeeded Stanley as President) wrote of Robert Crooks Stanley: “He was the man who saved the Nickel Company in 1922. He was the one in whom everyone had confidence. People had confidence in him and trusted him. I worked for him for 40 years on that kind of basis.”