Early Years: A Family Start-Up

The story of Maximum Instruments begins with its predecessor company, Wilfrid O. White & Sons, which produced compasses and depth sounders and other equipment in the 1940s and 1950s for the Navy and the recreational marine market. After Wilfrid died in 1955, his two sons, Gordon and Robert, continued running the company—Gordon was the president, focused largely on engineering while Robert was the vice-president and treasurer, focused on managing the business.

Maximum Office
Natick, MA 1983

Gordon developed the Corsair, a small, internally gimbaled compass, which was a break-through in the ‘50s for the recreational boating market. Gordon also developed a wind-speed and wind-direction instrument for use at home or afloat, and later added a full line of matching instruments—an electronic remote thermometer, a barometer, a clock and a tide clock. This was the earliest beginning of Maximum, Inc.

Gordon was never short of ideas to develop into products, so the key question was always deciding where to invest as a business. As Robert’s son Eldridge (“Ridge”) says, “Gordon was the accelerator; Dad was the brakes.”

The Eastern Company, a holding company that owned Danforth Anchors, bought the White company in the early ‘60s, and later merged Danforth and White. Robert left to start his own business, but Gordon stayed on for a few years, even as the company moved operations to Maine.

It’s never easy working for someone else after you’ve been in charge, and by the mid-‘60s, Gordon took what he called an “involuntary retirement.” It didn’t take long before he had patented some new instruments, accepted that he would lose his pension by competing with his old company, and started a new family business in his basement in Dover, Mass. In the summer of ’68, Maximum Instruments was born, and the company sold its first wind instrument that fall.

Gordon was always fascinated by the wind and figured others would be, too. He first developed the Observer, an instrument that displayed the wind speed as measured on an outdoor anemometer. Gordon designed and built both the instrument and the anemometer, solving the electromechanical challenge in a unique way, by placing a magnet in the shaft of the anemometer; every time the cups revolved, the magnet passed a coil and an output pulse was produced. The shaft was at first made of stainless steel, but then switched to beryllium copper, which had the advantage of being non-magnetic. The cups were made of Lexan plastic and the bearings of a modified Teflon called Rulon, mounted in rubber O rings for shock resistance.

Gordon then developed the Maestro, which included his patented “gust register.” The instrument displayed peak gusts of wind by means of a passive needle that was in fact a very long, hand-wound spring made of gold-plated phosphor bronze. By introducing a partial AC current into the regular gauge needle to cause minute oscillations, the gauge needle developed enough torque to hammer the passive needle up the scale like a tiny pile-driver. And there it would stay to show the highest gust of wind until the owner manually turned it back down. The gust register was also added to the Observer, which was later renamed Vigilant.

Gordon’s son Ken was in business school in 1968 and helped his father with the original papers of incorporation, setting up bank accounts, etc., while Gordon was getting the tools made for the shop.
 
Gordon was very direct with his employees, one of whom was his nephew Bruce. According to his brother Ridge, Bruce had “steady hands and excellent fine motor skills” but was somewhat intimidated by his uncle’s stern manner. As a result, Bruce often had sweaty palms while assembling instruments, which led Gordon to require him to wear white gloves in the shop to keep the delicate parts dry. Ken says, “The gloves didn’t work, so Dad got him some watchmaker’s cream that kept your hands from sweating.”

Ridge describes his uncle’s early test methods as follows: “To test his anemometer, Gordon convinced his wife Betty to go for a midnight ride in his Olds V8 Toronado. He took along a Vigilant indicator, a short length of cable, and windspeed cups on a short strut. They would set out on Route 128, hoping for no traffic, and Gordon would say, ‘Betty, put those cups out the window now!’ Betty would thrust the cups out the window, and Gordon would drive with the indicator in his lap so he could compare it to the speedometer gauge on his dashboard. Rumor has it he got up to 100 miles per hour and was satisfied with the result.’”

The Oldsmobile on Route 128 was not the only test track for the Maximum anemometer. Gordon also went to the wind tunnel at MIT to confirm the accuracy of his durable Lexan cups.

In its start-up years, the new company built its reputation on the technical abilities of its founder to create extraordinary instruments. But Gordon White decided he wasn’t going to run the company and preferred to focus on the product. That’s when his son, Ken, returned to take the reins. Ken says, “I always wanted to own and run my own company.”


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