Marked up to be included in the Scandinavian-Canadian Journal
ABSTRACT: Little is known of the many accomplishments of Finland-Swedish inventor and entrepreneur Erhard J. Alm (1901-1984). This paper explores the life of this extraordinary immigrant to Canada, who revolutionized the automobile service industry by inventing the portable vulcanizing machine that is found in many service stations around the world. From numerous inventions to concerns in health and nutrition, Alms’s legacy lives on through the businesses that still thrive in Southern Ontario.
RÉSUMÉ: Nous savons peu de choses sur les réalisations de l’inventeur et entrepreneur finno-suédois Erhard J. Alm (1901-1984). Cet article explore la vie de cet immigrant canadien extraordinaire qui révolutionna l’industrie du service automobile en inventant la machine de vulcanisation portative utilisée dans plusieurs stations service du monde. De ses nombreuses inventions jusqu’à ses préoccupations pour la santé et la nutrition, l’héritage de Alm se perpétue à travers les entreprises qui prospèrent encore au sud de l’Ontario.
Most immigrants who arrived in North America came with one goal—to improve their economic circumstances. They expected that this would involve hard work and commitment, and they were right, whatever the occupation they chose or place they settled. Some were self-employed as entrepreneurs and artists; a number came to develop ideas and innovations that would change the way people live. Some examples of this include Levi Strauss—blue jeans; Roy Jacuzzi—the first whirlpool bath; and Italo Marcioni—the first ice cream cone. Among the many success stories is also the life and career of a Finland-Swede who has yet to receive much attention: Erhard Johannes Vilhelmsson Alm who invented, among other things, the portable tire vulcanizing machine that is common in most service stations today.
Born in Terjärv on April 24, 1901,
Recognition and fame did not follow Alm when he moved on to another venture and possible career. In 1923 as a student at the Nykarleby Folk Academy, he participated in a class outing to the Keppo mansion farmstead in Jeppo, where Alm was introduced to chicken farming and incubators. In 1925, with the help of his brother, Alm established a chicken farm at Merjärv by obtaining 500 Leghorn and Plymouth Rock chicken eggs from Keppo as well as from Czechoslovakia (Myhrman 2). Everything went well at the beginning and on June 10, 1925, Alm was able to marry Hildur Sofia Mattsdotter Mattsson of Lepplax.
strong words from his father, he decided to leave for Canada
In July, 1925, Erhard and Hildur Alm arrived in Windsor, Ontario, which was then suffering a shortage of construction workers.
The next stage in Alm’s career began with a few pieces of equipment necessary for wallpapering. He earned a living for his family over the next several years as a paper hanger and painter. Son Douglas Bernard was born in Toronto on September 2, 1934. In 1938 when his brother Olof had begun working in the tire repair business, Alm saw the need for a reasonably priced tire vulcanizer.
As early as 1941, Alm conceived the idea of a portable vulcanizing machine that would be light and cheap, and could be used in service stations. However, over the next ten years, some other business ventures of his did not become commercial successes. These included inventions such as the water level—an instrument to show the level by means of the surface of water in a trough or in a U-shaped tube—and a new type of residential furnace and radiant heating system, as well as a car and truck sander.
In due course Alm’s attention returned to the portable vulcanizing machine. A prototype was built in 1956, and was promoted among industry leaders. Within two years, the Vulcan Equipment Company succeeded in breaking into the market. The new invention revolutionized the vulcanizing industry in North America and Europe, and Alm’s company became the largest manufacturer of vulcanizing machinery in the world (Myhrman 3, and Alm and Shaw 3). The VULCAN MPB Passenger Section Repair Mold cut curing time from 90 to 30 minutes and required the minimum electricity; furthermore it was mass produced at a price that inspired the creation of tire repair and retread shops around the world.
By 1963 some seventy employees worked at Vulcan Equipment, twenty of whom were of Scandinavian extraction. About 90% of the total production was exported outside Canada. In 1961 the business had been passed on to his son Bernie Alm (who died in 1992). Although the business is no longer within the Alm family, it is still in operation in Scarborough, Ontario. Known today as Vulcan-Vulcap Industries Inc., under the leadership of Heinz Haischt, the plant manufactures tire retreading and tire repair equipment, offers hands-on training and turnkey operation programs designed to help start up or upgrade tire repair and retreading businesses with top quality, affordable equipment (see
Over time, the company diversified and branched out into truck and large earthmover machines and tire spreaders, as well as equipment for conveyor belt repair, a revolutionary idea that Alm developed in 1962 (Myhrman 4). In fact, the invention of a vulcanizing machine that renewed the worn surfaces of conveyor belts led to an enterprise that was to become an industry leader in North America and the greatest success of Alm’s career. In time it passed under the control of his daughter Doris and son-in-law Jim Shaw of Parry Sound, Ontario. The company is called Shaw-Almex today, and it has offices on five continents and customers in over 95 countries.
Erhard J. Alm was a genius, always thinking of unusual and practical solutions to basic problems in several different fields. A post-retirement career developed from his keen interest in and awareness of health and medicine, and Alm began to study health issues, especially the area of nutrition. He concluded that many illnesses would be avoidable if people had proper nutrition. Indeed, some illnesses could be cured simply by a diet that includes many vegetables, fruits, natural juices, and especially wheat germ. In other words, a healthy meal. Erhard published his findings and opinions in the weekly Finland-Swedish newspaper
Alm was a man of faith throughout his life. He was very active in several Toronto area congregations, including the Swedish church and the Baptist churches in the region. His strong religious commitment is evident among his descendants as well, and can be symbolically noted on one of the business websites.