From disaster, inspiration


Boiler mishap 40 years ago led to the creation of Hydrolevel Company

On Oct. 2, 1962, a boiler explosion claimed the lives of 21 people at a New York Telephone building in Manhattan. The disaster, caused by an undetected low-water condition, forever changed the way all steam boilers, from that point, were manufactured and installed as New York Telephone searched for better ways to protect their employees and property from such low-water conditions.

At that time, Michael DeLeonardis of Farmingdale, N.Y., was experimenting with a new electronic water level device for steam boilers. He had developed his idea in Italy, where he had trained as a steam engineer in the years before World War II. After coming to America, DeLeonardis further refined his ideas while working on shipboard steam boilers at the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

A newspaper headline from October 1962 tells the story of the fateful boiler fire at the New York Telephone office in Manhattan, a disaster that led to the creation of the Hydrolevel Company.

His idea was simple but effective. Using water as an electrical conductor, he designed a control utilizing a ‘probe” sensor. The electronic control monitored the level of the boiler water without the use of moving parts that could wear and stick. A ‘time-delay” mechanism was also incorporated that allowed the probe to be used in the violent water of a steam boiler without short-cycling the burner.

DeLeonardis took the idea to New York Telephone, which recognized the advantages of the design. In 1965, his electric control was specified for all New York Telephone buildings and the Hydrolevel Comany was born.

‘There were a lot of safety concerns after the New York Telephone explosion,” said Bill Montgomery, a spokesman for Hydrolevel. ‘After that, all boilers, both residential and commercial, were supplied by manufacturers with a low-water cut-off in them. It was a big turning point in safety in steam boilers.”

But like most good stories, it was not as easy as it looked.
DeLeonardis was actually born in the United States, in Fitchburg, Mass., in 1900. At age seven, his family moved to Italy to care for a sick grandfather. DeLeonardis grew up in the town of Santa De Colle, but when Mussolini came to power, the family moved back to the U.S., settling in New York.

Michael DeLeonardis’ probe-type low-water cut-off that revolutionized the safety of residential and commercial boilers.

It was while working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard in the 1950s that DeLeonardis met his future partner in Hydrolevel, Russ Rymer. DeLeonardis had bid on a Navy contract for a hydrofoil and Rymer was the inspector the Navy sent to check out DeLeonardis’ operation, which at that time included a 16,00-square-foot shop on Long Island.

As it turned out, DeLeonardis didn’t get the contract, but he did point out to Rymer a flaw in the Navy’s design for the hydrofoil, which it did, in fact, have, a fact that Rymer would not forget.

When Hydrolevel was born, DeLeonardis secured Rymer as a partner in the operation, along with his own son, Dominick. While New York Telephone opened the door to the use of the probe-type low-water cut-off, other entities soon adopted the device. Among them were the Government Services Administration in 1968 and Brooklyn Union Gas in 1971.

Michael DeLeonardis’ Long Island workshop, where he developed the time-delay device that led to the creation
of the probe-type
low-water cut-off.

There were some, however, who were not enamored with DeLeonardis’ invention and several companies conspired with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, convincing the code-writing agency to say that time-delays in low-water cut-off applications should not be allowed.

When DeLeonardis and Rymer got word of this conspiracy, they went to the Wall Street Journal and the articles written in the paper became the basis for a precedent-setting lawsuit against ASME that would go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There, the court ruled in favor of Hydrolevel in a decision ‘that is still taught in engineering and engineering ethics classes today,” according to Montgomery.

The court victory did not come without a cost, however. Rymer had suffered for years with heart ailments and he was in the hospital the day the court ruled in Hydrolevel’s favor. In presenting him with the glorious news, DeLeonardis had his friend and business partner collapse and die in his arms of a heart attack. That was February 1979. Two months later, DeLeonardis himself passed away.

Forty years later, however, DeLeonardis’ inventive spirit lives on. Today, Hydrolevel, located in New Haven, Conn., offers a full line of products for boiler protection and liquid-level control. The new generation of Hydrolevel controls includes CycleGard foam-compensating cut-offs, VXT programmable water feeders and the Safgard 1100 Series ‘mini” cut-offs.

150 and counting
As 2005 dawned, Dubuque, Iowa-based Morrison Bros. Co., a supplier of petroleum-marketing equipment to distributors worldwide, began the celebration of its 150th anniversary.
Founded before the Civil War by Scottish immigrant John Morrison, the company began as a boiler shop and quickly evolved into a tank manufacturer. Under the direction of Andy Morrison, one of the ‘Morrison Brothers,” production increased to 21 tanks per day compared to just two tanks. Then, in 1908, the foundation for the present-day business was formed: the manufacturing of oil-handling equipment. Today, Morrison Bros. Co. produces over 2,500 petroleum equipment products.

Morrison Bros. Co. has been in business during both World Wars, Pearl Harbor and the Korean War. It has survived three fires, with one of the most devastating in 1996 that caused over $2 million in damages. It has been honored with the Navy ‘E” Award, the highest honor the government can bestow on a private-sector facility. The company has also been awarded numerous industry awards, including the Petroleum Equipment Institute’s Circle of Excellence Award. Through all of this, Morrison has kept the tradition that it was founded on: the belief that the real spirit of the business comes from the people who have been a part of it.

Morrison Bros. Co. would like to thank all of the people, past and present, who have helped them reach this 150th milestone.

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