McKay Gordon

Gordon McKay (1821–1903) was an American businessman and philanthropist. He was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was trained as an engineer, worked on a railroad and then on the Erie Canal before he purchased a machine shop. Around 1844 McKay established this business, which grew to employ over 100 men. He later met J. C. Hoadley, a future business partner who would become known for creating portable steam engines. Eventually the company became known as McKay and Hoadley.

In 1852, the workshop moved to the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where McKay eventually became the treasurer of the Lawrence Machine Shop. He met Lyman Reed Blake, who had applied for and received a patent from the United States government for his sewing machine for helping attach the soles of shoes to the upper of the shoe. This early sewing machine helped facilitate the production of low-cost shoes by eliminating the heavy work of hand sewing. Blake sold the patent to Gordon McKay a year afterwards for $8.000 in cash and a $62.000 share of future profits and became an employee.


Blake worked for Mckay from 1861 to 1874. McKay improved Blake's rather cumbersome system and with the advent of the American Civil War his Gordon McKay Shoe Machinery Company made large profits through the manufacture of much needed boots. McKay's most original idea was to lease the machinery rather than sell it outright, collecting a small royalty on each pair of shoes made with his equipment and over the years he amassed considerable wealth. By 1876, McKay was earning a staggering $500.000 per year in royalties.

In its licensing and royalty arrangements, McKay's company received the legal assistance of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who later became the first president of the Bell Telephone Company, which evolved to become the AT&T Corporation. As with McKay's company, the Bell Telephone Company chose to lease, rather than to sell its product, which in the case of the Bell Telephone Company became telephone service and not the telephones themselves.



McKay was not a graduate of Harvard, nor even of high school, but was a self-taught engineer and self-made businessman. The entrepreneur became close friends with Harvard geology professor Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who would later become dean of the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard in 1891. In 1893, McKay placed an initial $4 million in trust for Harvard. Thanks to his own desire for the development of better training which would result in more thoroughly educated engineers and Shaler's friendship and investment advice regarding gold, Gordon McKay left his estate to Harvard. Life trusts delayed the full transfer of the principal of the estate to Harvard until 1949. By then the total amounted to $16 million, the largest single gift received by the University until then and still one of the most generous so far when adjusted for inflation. His legacy today supports over forty professorships in engineering and applied science, one of the most significant monetary contributions to academic salaries. The terms of his will read, in part : "I direct that the salaries attached to the professorships maintained from the Endowment be kept liberal, generation after generation, according to the standards of each successive generation, to the end that these professorships may always be attractive to able men and that their effect may be to raise, in some judicious measure, the general scale of compensation for the teachers of the universities …” At Harvard, the Gordon McKay Laboratory for Applied Sciences is named for him. The professorships he endowed are within Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.








"In 1851, the first practical sewing machine was invented.  Ten years later, during the early portion of the Civil War, Gordon McKay had improved and patented a machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers.  The first inspection report of such shoes was unfavorable, but sample shoes tested in the field were so well received that procurement of machine-sewn shoes soon proceeded.  Not only McKay but other shoe manufacturers filled government orders; McKay astutely manufactured additional machines that he leased on a royalty basis to other shoe manufactures".

From: Lasting Impressions. An ancient craft's surprising legacy in Harvard's museums and laboratories

by Edward Tenner, Harvard Magazine

"Harvard does not care about shoes. Once it did....... "

"No, Harvard is not interested in shoes. But shoes, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky's reported quip about war, have been interested in Harvard. Footwear and higher education were two New England specialties. They could not avoid each other. While Harvard was becoming a national and international university after the Civil War, the Boston shoe industry was flourishing as a technological showpiece of American industry. Independently, they rose together. Even in 1865, before widespread mechanization, Brockton alone was producing more than a million pairs of shoes annually; by 1900, Boston shipped more than 100 million pairs. Although Cambridge itself never became one of the major shoe towns, some of Harvard's administrators and faculty members inevitably came to know the executives of the footwear industry.

"One of these Harvard men, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, dean of the Lawrence School of Science, was a close friend of the industrialist Gordon McKay (1821-1903), a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, native who had become one of America's most successful technical entrepreneurs. McKay, a self-taught specialist in the maintenance of mill equipment, learned of an invention for sewing the uppers of shoes to the soles, bought it for only $8,000 in cash and a $62,000 share of future profits, and developed it with the help of the master mechanic and original inventor, Lyman Reed Blake. He received his own patent for the improved version in 1862. During the Civil War he set up a company to produce his machines, helping meet the great demand of Union footwear contracts.

"McKay's most original idea was to lease the machinery rather than sell it outright, collecting a small royalty on each pair of shoes made with his equipment. Leases encouraged would-be manufacturers and reassured customers afraid of obsolescence, making it in McKay's interest to maximize customers' output. His company made constant improvements, and Blake sold the machinery and taught workers how to use it. McKay was earning $500,000 a year by 1876, and had collected royalties on more than 177 million pairs of shoes. By 1895, 120 million pairs of shoes a year were produced on McKay machines, more than half of U.S. production. Meanwhile a forceful businessman named Sidney Winslow had bought the rights to the lasting machine developed by the Suriname-born, African-American inventor (and former McKay machine operator) Jan Matzeliger, which brilliantly complemented the McKay process, and refined McKay's leasing and training strategy. It was Winslow who combined McKay's interests with those of Charles Goodyear Jr. (son of the inventor of vulcanized rubber), whose company produced equipment for sewing higher-grade welted shoes, and with dozens of large and small vendors of equipment and supplies and their patent portfolios. The resulting United Shoe Machinery Company, incorporated in 1899, had a virtual monopoly of the technology for the leading types of American shoe production. Winslow ran the company, and the retired McKay's interest in it was one of America's great fortunes.

"Reformers soon assailed the Shoe Trust. A shoe manufacturer might still, with some difficulty, get every necessary machine from some other supplier, but few independent domestic makers were left. United's leases forbade the use of most competitors' equipment and mandated the use of high-priced United supplies like wire and eyelets. The monopoly's only serious rival, a self- made French-Canadian shoe manufacturer named Tom Plant, introduced a competing line of machines, only to sell out to United in the end. To its supporters, including most New England shoe manufacturers, United earned its high profits with excellent equipment and service. To its foes, especially the Western shoe industry that was growing as producers sought lower costs outside New England, United suppressed innovation as well as competition, discontinuing superior machines after absorbing their makers and sitting on patents that could have lowered costs. The muckraking journalist Judson Welliver even attacked Winslow and United for virtually forcing the use of inferior materials that endangered the health of working-class shoe consumers. When McKay died in 1903 and the decades-long transfer of his bequest to Harvard began with a million dollars in 1909, Harvard thus almost certainly became a part owner of one of the most controversial companies in America, and definitely was a beneficiary. (Life trusts delayed the full transfer of the principal of the estate to Harvard until 1949. By then the total amounted to $16 million, the largest single gift received by the University until then and still one of the most generous so far when adjusted for inflation.)

"McKay and Shaler wanted to revive Harvard's flagging Lawrence School of Science. McKay, who lived a block from Harvard Yard, had given most of his fortune to Harvard rather than to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he hoped not only to improve engineering education, but to increase its appeal to the New England elite. MIT officials did not give up; they persuaded Harvard to accept a form of merger in which a new science and engineering campus would rise across the Charles River, where the business school is today. The plan, opposed vociferously by MIT alumni, was rejected by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1905, leading Harvard to establish a Graduate School of Applied Science--forerunner of today's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences--in 1906.

"While the Corporation and faculty were studying uses for McKay's bounty, a number of Harvard alumni were busy engineering the hegemony of United, also called The Shoe. Through directorships they helped connect it with the First National Bank of Boston and with Lee, Higginson and Co., two of New England's greatest financial powers, and at least indirectly with J.P. Morgan, A.B. 1889, LL.D. '23. Some of the University's cleverest sons helped rivet its redoubtable boilerplate. Before Louis D. Brandeis, LL.B. 1877, brought an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of a group of Western shoe manufacturers against United, he had helped draft its leases. Among its directors were both shoe men and leading Harvard-educated attorneys like Robert Treat Paine, A.B. 1882, and James J. Storrow, A.B. 1885, LL.B. '88. Robert F. Herrick, A.B. 1890, was chief legal adviser. United's treasurer from 1909 to 1924, the former journalist and political publicist Louis Coolidge, A.B. 1883, helped to make the vast United plant such a model of enlightened safety, health, and recreation programs that Horace D. Arnold, A.B. 1885, M.D. '89, dean of Harvard Medical School, proclaimed that it provided the best industrial working conditions he had ever seen. Sidney Winslow Jr. '05 succeeded his father as head of United. Under his presidency, in 1930, the company built the 24-story art deco downtown headquarters, its lobby adorned with sumptuous tableaux of shoemaking, that for decades was Boston's tallest building.

"United affected Harvard's building, too. As a young architect, Walter Gropius was impressed with a postcard of Ernest L. Ransome's extensively glazed United factory in Beverly, Massachusetts, possibly the world's most advanced industrial plant on its completion in 1906. The building influenced the design Gropius completed for the Fagus shoe-last company in Alfeld, Germany, in 1913, a progressive firm coincidentally backed by United. This celebrated commission helped him become director of the state architecture and design school reorganized as the Bauhaus, and, after emigration, chairman of the architecture department at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The lineage of Gropius's Graduate Center (1948-50) thus goes back to the quest for more efficient shoe-machinery plants....."

"...Harvard Business School may no longer produce guides to retail shoe-stocking systems, but the industry has still left its footprint on the University. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 45 of 63 faculty members of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, including the computer science department, held positions named for Gordon McKay. (So did the barefooting Thomas McMahon, a delightful polymath who even conjured up a new, improved Gordon McKay in his 1979 novel, McKay's Bees.) The McKay bequest a model of legal prose, rigorous yet literate stipulated that the salaries he endowed "be kept liberal, generation after generation, according to the standards of each successive generation." What more can a professor ask from a benefactor"?

From The Enterprising Americans: A Business History of the United States, by John Chamberlain

"...Meanwhile, as early as the  1850’s, the sewing machine had been used to do the stitching on shoe uppers. But in the Massachusetts shoe towns, Lynn, Haverhill, Marblehead and  in Hartford and Philadelphia, the business of matching soles and uppers was still being farmed out to household workers.   A successful shoe-pegging machine had been invented in 1833, but hand sewers and peggers threatened boycott and mayhem. Even after the prejudice against  machine pegging had evaporated, as shoe manufacturers the various mechanical pegging devices there wasn’t much money in them. By the time a manufacturer had paid for the eternal litigation his pegging profits had vanished. Consequently, when Lyman R. Blake in South Abingdon, Massachusetts, managed to do the heavy work of sewing soles to uppers mechanically, the industry was ready for his invention.  Ironically, the Blake invention, patented in 1858, became known as  the  “McKay  Sewing  Machine’’ -- so  called because  Gordon McKay, an engineer, bought Blake out for cash and a royalty that was to total $70,000.  (Eventually, through patent renewal, Blake got far more money. )  McKay had the financial resources to fight patent suits — and he also had the will and the skill to adapt Blake’s machinery to large-scale operations. He helped devise special ma- chines to melt the wax on thread as it passed through heavy leather, and he substituted steam-driven factories for the old piece- work system that had been in force ever since Ebenezer Breed, the Quaker, had started the wholesale shoe business in Lynn in the eighteenth century. McKay refused to sell his machines outright, preferring to lease them and to collect royalties on every pair of shoes made.  As a bonus, the client who leased a McKay machine got a small part of the McKay company capital stock.  As patents ran out, McKay kept picking up other inventions:   he was, at one time, a partner of Charles Goodyear Jr., the son of the inventor of vulcanized rubber.  In time the so-called “Goodyear welt” was to become synonymous with quality shoemaking, and when S. V. A. Hunter,  secretary-treasurer of the company, suggested that the welt be advertised as “better than” hand sewing, an important mercantile slogan was born. Out of the McKay industrial leasing and various mergers United Shoe Machinery was eventually created—and so low did this company keep its royalties that it encountered little organized opposition for a long period..."




For more on United Shoe Machine and the City of Beverly, Massachusetts see The Shoe and the History of the Cummings Center .

For more on Gordon McKay and shoe history see Shoes of the 19th Century

On Gordon McKay's Indian Mound and Jekyll Island




US 36.163             Gordon  McKay & Robert H. Mathies

Improvements in the Sewing Mechanism patented to L. R. Blake July 6, 1858

 August 12, 1862


US 177.264                            Gordon  McKay

 Improved Tacking Machine for Boots and Shoes

May 9, 1876


US 180.146                            Gordon  McKay

Improvement in Machines for Uniting Soles to Uppers

July 25, 1876


US 302.885                            Matthias  Brock

Lasting Machine

Assignor to McKay & Copeland Lasting Machine Company

August 5, 1884


US 306.671                            Matthias  Brock

This invention has for its object the production of a simple and efficient tack-driving apparatus especially applicable for lasting boots and shoes

Assignor to McKay & Copeland Lasting Machine Company

October 14, 1884


US 309.519                            Matthias  Brock

Lasting Machine

Assignor to McKay & Copeland Lasting Machine Company

December 23, 1884