By Mark Gutglueck
Earl Holmes Richardson is associated with and played a role in two of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities, the geographically disparate municipalities of Ontario and Adelanto.
Born in Wisconsin in 1871, Richardson came to age in the era of Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. As a young man in Milwaukee, which was one of the hotbeds of the latter industrial revolution, Richardson learned a few things about practical science. He made his way to Ontario in 1895 and found a job maintaining and repairing the power plant that electrified the trolley cars that traveled up and down Euclid Avenue. Several years later he would return to the power plant and help to electrify the Model Colony.
In the early 1900s, he was employed as a meter reader for the Ontario Power Company. Inspired by his wife, Mary’s lament about the relative inconvenience of having to constantly reheat her traditional clothes iron on the stove, Richardson utilized his knowledge of electricity to experiment with using resistive heating from an electrical current to create an electric flat iron. He designed a small, lightweight model that was easier to wield than the five to ten pound irons of the day. He distributed his model widely around Ontario, convincing his customers that they represented an improvement on the fueled irons of that generation that utilized whale oil, kerosene, ethanol and even gasoline. He then prevailed upon the company he worked for to generate power all day every Tuesday, which he promoted as ironing day, so power customers could use his new iron. He reasoned that if sufficient electric irons were in use, customers would demand more power and through a wider cusomer base and economies of scale the high electrical rates then being levied could be reduced. This proved to be the case.
In 1904, Richardson left the power company and started up the Pacific Electric Heating Company on Euclid Avenue just below the railroad tracks to manufacture electric irons. An initial flaw in the early model of his irons was that they grew too hot in the center of the ironing plate. His wife suggested that he redesign the heating element closer to the top point of the iron to facilitate pressing around buttonholes, ruffles and pleats. He fabricated a version incorporating this change and had several local laundresses test it as to its serviceability. They found “the iron with the hot point” to be indispensable. In 1905, he manufactured and sold more electric irons under the “Hotpoint” name than any other company in America.
Beginning in 1911 and continuing until 1917, Richardson found other innovative ways to electrify household appliances. These entailed the “El” line of products, with El being short script for “electric.” Among them were the El Perco (an electric coffeepot), El Chafo (a chafing dish), El Tosto (an electric toaster), El Stovo (an early hotplate), El Eggo (an egg cooker), El Teballo (an electric teapot), and El Warmo (an electric heating pad).
In 1915, Richardson sold one of his patents and purchased land in what is now Adelanto for $75,000. His intention was to and develop one of the first planned communities in Southern California. Richardson subdivided his land into one-acre plots.
Upon America’s entrance into what was then known as the “Great War” but which subsequently was called World War I, many of the combatants, known in America as “doughboys” were exposed to mustard gas. Richardson, in response to the significant number of GIs afflicted in this way, hoped to create in Adelanto a community that would be hospitable to veterans with respiratory ailments suffered while serving their country. He worked toward building a respiratory hospital/sanitarium there. Richardson never fully realized this goal, but his planning and efforts laid the foundation for what is currently the city of Adelanto, which incorporated in 1970 and transitioned into a charter city in 1992.
During World War I, Richardson entered into discussions with George Hughes, the owner/inventor of the electric range and with the heating device section of the General Electric Company. The upshot of those talks was a merger of the Richardson’s Hotpoint electric Heating Company with the others, creating the Edison Electric Appliance Company,which featured the GE Hotpoint line of products. That resulted in an expansion of the existing iron manufacturing facility in Ontario.
GE Hotpoint became the largest employer in Ontario, employing 25 percent of the city’s labor force. After the merger was in effect, General Electric sought to bring Richardson back to near Milwaukee, asking him to manage its manufacturing operations in Chicago. But he was reluctant to leave Ontario and Adelanto, so he continued to manage the local Ontario plant.
Under his direction, new products were designed and sold, such as room heaters. In 1925, in conjunction with Hughes, Hotpoint offered the first all-white, fully enameled electric range. In 1929, GE began selling Richardson’s last significant invention, an early version of the crock pot, which he called the “jug cooker.”
Richardson died in 1934, but the Ontario plant continued to manufacture electric irons until it closed in 1982.
In 1941, the 20 millionth iron manufactured at the plant, this one gold-plated, was presented to Una Winter, Earl Richardson’s sister. When the 50 millionth iron was produced at the plant in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower was looking on. In 1969 the 100 millionth iron rolled off the Ontario production line and in 1980, the 150 millionth was manufactured there.
According to legend, the last iron manufactured there was buried on the grounds of the Ontario plant rather than being sent back to GE’s Bridgeport Connecticut plant in 1982.
By Mark Gutglueck