Handbooks are available for many LeBlond lathes
Richard K. LeBlond did not manufacture automobiles, massive guns for America's war effort, bicycles, engines or major industrial parts but he did make the tools that allowed other companies to manufacture those and dozens of other products - and helped make Cincinnati the machine-tool capital of the world during the early part of the 20th century.
The eldest of five sons of English immigrants, LeBlond was born in April 1864 in Linwood, then a suburb of Cincinnati. As an industrial pioneer, LeBlond - who in 1903 developed the first crankshaft lathe for the auto industry - came up the hard way, benefiting from neither a privileged birth nor special talents. He attributed his success to years of long hours at his work bench, guided by a maxim that his parents impressed upon him: ''By work and work alone shall you succeed to those things you seek.'' When LeBlond was in his mid-teens, his father - a printer and Civil War veteran - secured him a position as an apprentice machinist with the Franklin Type Foundry on Vine Street downtown.
The foundry manufactured small printing presses, simple machine tools and moulds and gauges used to make type. While working there LeBlond attended night school at the Ohio Mechanics Institute, studying mechanical drawing and general mechanics.
At home, he rigged up a small bench in the bedroom he shared with one of his brothers, John. The noise at first made John LeBlond want to: ''lovingly beat him on the head with a precision tool,'' but John became accustomed to the sound of his older-brother's files scratching across small pieces of steel far into the night.
After five years at Franklin LeBlond - eager to broaden his knowledge of other shops' operations - went to work at a type foundry in St. Louis, then took a similar job in Providence, R.I.
In 1887, age 23, he returned to Cincinnati, where he used his savings to open a three-man shop in a 20-by-20-foot room on Pearl Street on the central riverfront. The new business was so small that a bank refused to accept his account.
LeBlond and his two employees initially manufactured moulds, gauges and small tools for the type-making industry. Modest but steady growth marked the firm's early years. Optimistically planning for future expansion, LeBlond nearly tripled his space by moving to Second and Plum Streets in 1888.
In 1891 a contract to build lathes and lathe attachments for a firm that would become the American Tool Works launched the machine-tool career that would make ''LeBlond Lathes'' internationally famous.
Rapid growth in the bicycle industry created a new demand for his lathes and, by the late 1890s, LeBlond was again considering expansion. In a move ridiculed as suicidal by business associates he decided to move to the city's outskirts on Eastern Avenue - becoming the first machine-tool factory to abandon the core business district. Other factories soon followed his lead to the open land and cheaper property prices of the suburbs.
A sharp economic downturn in the year before World War I threatened the survival of the R.K. LeBlond Machine Tool Co. but LeBlond refused to lay off workers, telling them, as he would again during the Depression: ''Stick with me, and I'll stick with you.'' This reinforced an already unusually strong bond between boss and workers - and gave LeBlond a large stockpile of products when the war brought a flood of orders.
''He has what it takes: vision and a heck of a lot of nerve,'' long-time employee James Slevins said in the 1940s.
LeBlond's workers idolized him. Family emergencies often brought unsolicited loans from LeBlond, who frequently socialized with his workers, bowling in a company league. During one shop meeting a speaker asked the men to take off their hats for ''R.K.,'' as he was called. ''Don't do it,'' LeBlond shouted. ''I never did ask a man to take off his hat to me and I never will.''
With war production at its height LeBlond built a state-of-the-art machine-tool plant in 1918 on 11 acres in Norwood. Sustained growth between the wars was driven largely by the auto industry's burgeoning need for machinery to mass-produce parts. The company's workforce reached nearly 1,200 in the early 1940s when war once again strained its production facilities.
During World War II, LeBlond's secret defence work included construction of a mammoth gun-boring lathe nearly 100 feet long and weighing more than 60 tons. This giant lathe, which required two railroad flatcars during shipment, was capable of boring gun barrels up to 27 inches in diameter and 38 feet long.
After 52 years as president of the company, LeBlond stepped down in 1940 and was succeeded by his son, Richard, one of his four children by his wife of 57 years, Loretto - a member of another prominent family, the Heekins. For the next 12 years, Richard was the company's chairman.
Beyond serving on the boards of more than two dozen firms, LeBlond also was active in civic circles. He was a member of Cincinnati's first Planning Commission, which created the original city plan, and a trustee of the Cincinnati Art Museum.
An ardent sportsman, for years he had one of the biggest yachts on the Ohio River, and his talent as a golfer was clear in his ability to ''shoot his age'' from the time he was 70 until he was 87. LeBlond died at 88 in March 1953. He was working on a series of new lathe designs to the end.
Under his will, after his wife died five years later, their spectacular 40-room Tudor mansion in Linwood passed to the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Today, St. Ursula Villa School occupies the property.
Hit hard by foreign competition, the LeBlond company was acquired by Japan's Makino Corp. in 1981 and renamed the LeBlond Makino Machine Tool Co. Seven years later, the new owners sold the Norwood plant to a developer who built a shopping mall, Rookwood Plaza, on the site; the original brick smokestack now towers over a Mexican restaurant.
In 1996 the company, now based in Mason, was renamed Makino Inc. as part of an effort to become the ''most global provider'' of machine-tool technology. But, while LeBlond's name may have disappeared from the company that he nurtured from a tiny three-man shop, his lasting contributions have not - as evidenced by his election to the American Precision Museum's Hall of Fame in 1990.
Committing himself to ''the machine tool, the tool which reproduces itself, the tool which makes more and better things,'' as a company brochure once put it, LeBlond left an impact that will be felt forever..