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William Coffin Coleman

William Coffin "W.C." Coleman was born on May 21, 1870 in Chatham, New York and was the son of Robert and Julia Coffin Coleman. The Coleman family homesteaded a farm in Labette County, Kansas in February, 1871, making the 1,500 mile journey from New York by train and covered wagon. W.C. grew up on the farm and after his father's death worked to supplement the family income while he completed his public school education.

He became a successful seller of a variety of products ranging from Bibles to cookware to stereoptics. He refused to sell a product that he did not personally value or use. Although he had poor eyesight and was forced to employ a reader, he was successful in his academic pursuits: he completed the four year program at Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University) in Emporia, Kansas in three years. He excelled in declamation and oratory.

Coleman taught and them became the superintendent of schools at Blue Rapids, Kansas. He subsequently had a teaching fellowship at Ottawa University, in Ottawa, Kansas and continued his study of elocution and language. After two years, he decided to study law at Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas. To pay for his studies in law, Coleman sold typewriters on a part-time basis for three years.

While on a selling trip to Alabama, W.C. saw the brilliant white light produced by a gasoline mantle lamp shining from a drug store window. He later reflected that "This was the most exciting moment of my life."  The illumination was so significantly better that he decided to start selling a line of lamps rather than typewriters. He contacted the owners of the lamp company and tried to buy some lamps. The owner, W.H. Irby, of the Irby-Gilliland Company in Memphis, Tennessee, told Coleman he would have to buy the right to sell the lamps in a specific territory. After two different contacts and negotiations, Coleman received the right to sell the lamps in Oklahoma.

His first attempt at selling the lamps in Kingfisher, Oklahoma met with failure. At the end of his first week, he had only sold two lamps. He found out that the local businessmen had been sold lamps by a traveling salesman; the lamps quit working, and no one could repair them. Coleman developed a plan where the businesses could rent his lamps and pay a weekly rental fee of one dollar per lamp. He would maintain and service the lamps; if the lamps did not work, there was no cost to the business person. This was unique, but effective: at the end of his second week he had rented 100 lamps.

This plan was so successful that he was able to employ an assistant and on January 8, 1900, Coleman started Hydro-Carbon Light Company. At this point he perceived the product to be sold was light rather than lamps. He called himself a "one man private utility."  By 1902 the Hydro-Carbon Company had 300 lamps in service in Wichita, Kansas. The private lighting utility service rapidly grew and soon he provided service to towns in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, as well as to San Diego, California, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In 1903, Coleman bought the rights to the original patent for the lamp. The previous owners had told him that they wanted to sell the company for $10,000. Coleman explained that he could not afford to buy it; all of his money was in the lamps he had been purchasing from them. They insisted that he stay overnight and consider their offer. The next day, W.C. again stated that he could not afford to buy the business. Finally, the owners agreed to sell the lamp company to Coleman for $3,000, with him paying $1,000 as a down payment and the remainder to be paid as he could afford. The $1,000 was borrowed from Coleman's brother-in-law farmer, who had just made his first crop in three years. Coleman later referred to his success in persuading his brother-in-law to loan him the money as the "sale he never forgot."

Coleman foresaw the threat to his service caused by the tungsten filament electric bulb. So he switched from selling light to selling lamps. While operating the light service, Coleman had worked on improvements for the lamp to reduce service requirements. The original lamp was manufactured in Meriden, Connecticut, but he began manufacturing lamps at a small factory in Wichita, Kansas in 1905. That same year, Coleman lamps successfully lit the football field for what is believed to the first night football game, a game between Fairmount College (now Wichita State University) and Cooper College (now Sterling college).

The firm also employed the first technical employee, Hiram W. Strong, who had two years of training at Kansas State Agriculture College (now Kansas State University), to assist in engineering. The total lamps produced in 1905 amounted to 275 units. Mr. Strong later related that he had first thought the idea of manufacturing lamps in Wichita was a "beautiful pipe dream."  In 1906, the total manufactured leaped to 5,000 unites; six years later (1912) the plant produced 51, 681 lamps and in 1918, 116,340. Before 1920, annual sales exceeded $1 million for the first time. By 1925, the Wichita plant had over three acres of floor space and was equipped to make 2,500 lamps and lanterns, 100, 000 mantles, 600 camp stoves and 100 gasoline cook stoves per day.

During this same period, Coleman developed a gasoline table lamp. Previously, the lamps had to be suspended from the ceiling. Then came a gasoline cook stove and a heater. The table lamp and cook stove proved to be a success especially with farm families. Improvements continued to be made to the original lamp. Coleman also developed a gasoline iron for ironing clothes and a gasoline camp stove. Hot water heaters, tanks for lighting and heating systems, and burners for special uses were also being manufactured. But the crowning success of the 20's was the Coleman Instant-Lite, a device which allowed a lamp to light instantly. Coleman received the patent for this lamp in 1929. It was this lantern that literally brought about the world wide use of Coleman Lanterns, from Eskimo igloos to the South Seas. Plants were built in LaPorte, Indiana and Toronto, Canada.

In 1931, Coleman also introduced several electric cooking appliances, including a waffle iron, a coffee percolator, and a bread toaster. However, with the Depression came the need to cut back rather than expand and eventually these electrical products were phased out. The firm started producing gas floor furnaces and oil space heaters and rapidly became the largest manufacturer of these products.

During World War II, the Coleman pocket stove enabled soldiers to have hot meals under battle conditions. The firm manufactured over two million "GI Pocket Stoves" and lanterns for the armed services. After World War II, emphasis was placed on responding to, the pent up demand for leisure time markets. Literally millions of gas lanterns, portable stoves for sporting activities, insulated coolers and jugs produced by Coleman allowed them to expand their niche in the market. Annual sales surpassed the $20 million level in the 1940's.

On a more personal note, W.C. Coleman married Fanny Sheldon on New Year's Day, January 1, 1901, one year after starting his lighting Service Company. Fanny's father was a state legislator and owned a hardware store in Ottawa, Kansas. He tried to persuade W.C. to go work in the store, but Coleman refused, stating that he had his own personal goals to pursue. The Colemans moved to Wichita, Kansas at the end of 1901. W.C. and Fannie had two sons, Sheldon and Clarence. They were very active in church affairs: he was president of the Northern (American) Baptist Convention in 1927-28. For 14 years he was a member of the General Council of the Convention. He helped found the National Council of Northern Baptist Men; in 1928, he became the first president of the organization. In 1947, he was honored by the National Council of Northern Baptist Men for outstanding service to the church and in 1950, the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School of Rochester, New York awarded him a special citation "for outstanding achievement in bringing Christianity into business and business into the organization of Christianity."

He served as trustee on the boards of Ottawa University, Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Kansas City, Kansas and Bacone College, Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Ottawa University. From 1921 to 1925, Mr. Coleman served as a city commissioner for Wichita, and he was mayor of Wichita in 1923 and 1924. In 1950, during the 50th anniversary of Coleman Company's founding and Mr. Coleman's 80th birthday, he was designated as "Wichita's first citizen." He was President of the Rotary Club in Wichita and served for over 30 years on the YMCA board of Directors.

For over 40 years he was very active in the National Red Cross Organization. Coleman called the Bible the "greatest book on business ever written." He was sometimes perceived of as a radical in his treatment of workers: in 1904 he reduced the 10-hour work day to nine and then eventually to eight hours. Employees were receiving holiday pay and workmen's compensation in 1914, before the state had enacted such a law. They also received a five minute break in the morning and afternoon, one week paid vacation, free medical services, and life insurance. In 1923, a combination auditorium and gymnasium was constructed for their use. Periodically, W.C. arranged for speeches and programs to be presented to the employees at lunch. For Christmas, every employee received a turkey and ten dollars; this practice continues. Coleman also encouraged the employees to enroll in night school and special classes in mathematics, blue print reading, mechanical drawing, and common school subjects were offered in the plant. Later on there were opportunities for profit sharing and stock ownership.

One of his "Good Rules For Making A Success in Business" stated that one should "Be a true brother to your employee and fellow worker and he will do wonderful work under your captaincy." After sales trips, W.C. would go out in the factory and talk to the employees about what he had learned and about his dreams of new and better products. He had two mottos which he continually stressed: "Nothing is really sold until it gives satisfaction" and "every Coleman product must be the best of its kind." On the outside wall of the original plant in Wichita is a large sign which states: "Coleman means quality. Always has. Always will."

W.C. knew many of the employees by name, on a first name basis, as well as much about their families. He maintained "consistently peaceful and progressive" labor relations, expressed by his "let's talk it over" approach. Mr. Coleman's managerial practices were the subject of several articles in business and professional journals such as NATION'S BUSINESS; PSYCHOLOGY; and THE ROTARIAN.

Sheldon Coleman joined his father in the company in the late 1920's after completing an Engineering Degree at Cornell. He first worked in the Toronto, Canada plant, and then moved to Wichita to work in sales, design, and administration.

Clarence Coleman joined his father and brother in the operation of the plant in the 1930's after completing a degree in Business Administration. Although they revered their father very much, at the plant the sons were individuals, and they usually referred to their father as W.C., just like everyone else. It was with their encouragement and support that Coleman moved into the home comfort products such as furnaces.

During the Depression, things were very tenuous for the company; financing was sometimes hard to find. But the two sons assured their father that they would stick with him until the crisis was over. The three worked as a team, with Sheldon in charge of routine administration, Clarence manager of all manufacturing, and W.C. responsible for sales.

Between March and Christmas, 1933, W.C. traveled over 50,000 miles and personally contacted 1,000 of their customers. He was 63 years old at that time. During the next ten years W.C. called on another 5,000 dealers and visited every city of 25,000 or more in population, as well as 90 percent of the towns with 10,000 or more citizens. Annual sales in the 1950's broke the $40-million level, and in the 1960's, $115-million. The company's common stock was listed on the American Stock Exchange, and the 15-millionth lamp was produced.

In 1943, W.C. Coleman was recognize by the National Association of Manufacturers as a "Modern Pioneer of America" for his efforts in raising the standards of American living. This was a very prestigious award., given in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Patent System. W.C. always referred to himself as a salesman: he was proud to be in sales and obviously enjoyed working with people. He was inherently optimistic and looked forward to each new day. He was once introduced as the discoverer of the Fountain of Youth and a living example of the creed "a man never grows old until he loses his pleasurable anticipation of tomorrow's task and opportunities."

Although he was devoutly religious, he did not proselytize or push his beliefs on anyone. He did not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, or use profanity. And yet at the same time, he enjoyed socializing with people, and once was described as the "only Teetotaler who could enjoy a party."

William Coffin Coleman was active in the company until his death on November 2, 1957. He was succeeded by Sheldon as president. The company continued to grow, and in 1986, the 40-millionth lantern was produced. During the 1980's, the company's common stock was moved to the New York Stock Exchange, and annual sales exceeded $500 million. This was obviously much more than the pipe dream which Hiram Strong had first questioned in 1905. In speaking to a conference of Coleman sales representatives, W.C. observed "we're not in it just to make money. The only real happiness comes from serving your community and your fellow man." For over eighty years, W.C. Coleman's contributions to Wichita, the state of Kansas, and to the nation exemplified his commitment to serving his community and fellow man.

This report was compiled and written by Bartlett J. Finney for the Kansas Business Hall of Fame in June, 1990. This report was adapted to this web site form by William L. Smith, for the Kansas Business Hall of Fame.