Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Saturday, October 05, 1940, Page 18

No. 29 in a Mason City Series of Success Stories

LESTER BARLOW, Soldier of Fortune

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Of all the stories that have appeared in "They Started Here" none is the equal of that of Lester P. Barlow, whose Algeresque career is actual proof of the old adage that truth is stranger than faction.

For Barlow, who was recently granted nearly $600,000 by the federal government for a bomb he invented more than 20 years ago, has lived a truly amazing life since his boyhood at Clear Lake and his later employment in Mason City.

Barlow's story book life began in Monticello, Wis., Dec. 2, 1882, where he was born of George and Jessie Peiree Barlow. When he was still a boy, the family moved to a farm near Clear Lake and he grew up there, living the typical life of a farm boy.

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Lester went to school at Clear Lake and early showed himself to be the type of pupil who excelled at whatever he was interested in, but was mediocre to poor in subjects that failed to attract his interest.

Schooling did not attract him greatly, for his interest - a compassionate, all consuming one - was in things mechanical. He loved to see what made things go.

So at the age of 14 he left school and came to Mason City to be an electrician's apprentice. He spent four hears here, and took a correspondence school course at the same time. But at the end of the four years he developed a trace of gypsy blood and began to wander westward.

Finding himself in Washington, he ran a sawmill engine for a time, but finally decided he wanted to follow the sea, at least for a time. So he tried to get a job as a marine engineer, but they told him he was too young.

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A little smarter the second time, Lester applied for enlistment in the United States navy, telling the recruiting officer that he was 22 years old, four years more than he actually had attained. This ruse got him the enlistment he wanted and i a short time he found himself a fireman on the U.S.S. Solace.

That was when radio was in its barest infancy and the navy was just beginning to experiment with the new device. It so happened that one of the new radios, the only one in the navy in fact, was on the Solace.

Such a thing could not help but attract a young man like Lester Barlow and the North Iowan began to hang around the radio shack. Before long he found he knew as much about the radio as the operator did an dso earned an electrician's rating.

As an electrician, the young sailor soon found himself at the navy base in Guam, where he supervised the installation of the first naval radio station there. Then the Japanese navy wanted to borrow an American operator to supervise the installation of the first radio equpment on a ship of the imperial navy. Lester Barlow was the man assigned to the job.

After that work was completed the North Iowa youth found himself on the flagship of the Pacific fleet at Manila and there he saw William Howard Taft, then commissioner of the Philippines, when the president-to-be sailed on the ship from Maila to Vladivostok on his way to this country to run for the office to which he was elected that fall.

That same year, 1908, Lester Barlow completed his enlistment and decided against going back into the navy. He was interested in art at that time, having done a little drawing for newspapers in Manila, and so he got a job with an advertising agency by posing for a sailor picture and talking fast all the while. When the picture was finished he had a job at $8 a week and was studying art at night.

* * *

But after a time he felt that this work didn't suit him either, so he left it and returned to Mason City, where he went to work for the Colby automobile company. His natural mechanical ability stood him in good stead and before long he had advanced from road tester to general trouble shooter.

From Mason City Barlow went to work for the Packard Motor company and then joined the White truck company, where he worked for three years on teh development of engines and special wheels for desert travel.

In 1913 he had jumped again and was working for a chemical mining company in Lower California as a transportation engineer. It was about this time that a man named Pancho Villa began kicking up a rumpus in Mexico and stories that Barlow heard of him intrigued him.

So he decided to join Villa and see a little excitement. The famous rebel wouldn't hear of it, but that made little difference to the determined Barlow and he tried another tack. He became the mechanic for the chauffeur who drove the car of Gen. Benavides, Villa's chief aide.

* * *

Things began to get hot for Generals Villa and Benavides and the chauffeur finally ducked out, leaving things in the hands of Lester Barlow. Through General Benavides, Barlow was able to get close to Villa and when the famed rebel leader took Mexico City, Lester Barlow was a member of his staff in charge of transportation.

And it was at this time that the former North Iowan first became interested in explosives, possibly because he served as a gunner in Villa's army at times.

At any rate, he persuaded Villa to buy an airplane and invented what was probably the first airplane bomb. He had met Glenn Martin earlier in California and the idea of using an airplane as an offensive weason had tickled his imagination until an idea came to him.

The first bombs were made from old railroad wheels which Barlow melted up for the purpose. They were somewhat short of a success, but indicated to Barlow's fertile mind that great possibilities lay in his idea.

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By this time Villa's tide was beginning to ebb and Barlow's mind was so full of his new idea that he lost interest in the forturnes of Mexico's most picturesque rebel. So he went to Washington to sell the war department on his idea.

Cannily, he stopped first to see someone who could do him some good, Gen. Leonard Wood. Genearl Wood was interested in the airplane bomb idea and wrote a letter of introduction for its inventor to the then acting secretary of war, Gen. Hugh Scott.

The interview was so successful that Barlow was given $5,000 with wich to experiment and was sent to an arsenal at Philadelphia for his work. It was there that he developed the idea for which the government recently paid him.

At the same time he had been trying his hand with a bomb which would explode on a small charge on hitting the ground but would throw the main charge back into the air to go off in the same manner as a high explosive or shrapnel shell. He hit upon a solution of the problem, thereby beating both British and Italian experts who had been seeking the same type of bomb without success.

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That same year, 1916, Lester Barlow went to Europe to demonstrate his first bomb, which he said was suggested by seeing Annie Oakley smash glass balls in the air at Buffalow Bill's wild west show. And he took along his return action device. He showed both bombs to the British and had the satisfaction of seeing them both used, although neither one ever brought him any recompense.

While in England the inventor saw a machine gun fire through a propeller and quickly conceived an improvement on the device. This he explained to a man named Herbert Hoover when coming back to the United States. Hoover, a fine engineer, thought it was a good idea, and also approved the idea which had come to the inventive genius for depth charges to use against submarines.

At that time depth charges were not the deadly weapons for submarine defense that they are today, for they had to strike the submarine to be exploded. It was the former North Iowan's idea that the charges could be set off by the pressure of the water, and that they could further be regulated to explode at any depth desired.

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Although Mr. Hoover liked the idea, the navy department didn't, or at least said it didn't. However, it is significant that although Barlow was ushered out of the navy department without much of a hearing, his idea was in universal use for the end of the war and is still the principle governing the detonation of the depth charges.

The war department was much the same with the mqachine gun synchronizing device, so Lester Barlow made som of them for the French government. But when General Pershing arrived in France, he saw some of the French planes and pressed inquiries as to why the United States didn't have any. Then Barlow got action in Washington.

About this time Russia wanted the inventor to help out with some army ordnance problems, so he went abroad again. On his return he was accused by some army officials of having given away military secrets. He tells the story of what happened when the accusation was made.

"I happened to know that the United States was doing its damndest to get full information about the double tracking of the Trans-Siberian railway, figuring that if the Atlantic were closed they'd take troops across the Pacific and Russia.

"After they'd finished bawling me out, I tossed on the table all the dope about the railroad. I said: 'There you are, gentlemen. You couldn't steal this information. I traded for it. That shut 'em up."

After the war the middle west called again and the inventor turned up in Minnesota where he dabbled in politicis a little, then going to Detroit and Cleveland where he worked for the American Locomotive company, the Brown Hoist company and was a consulting engineer for Babcock and Wilcox.

Returning to Detroit, Barlow was employed by the McCord company until 1930, working on automobile cooling systems. Throughout this period he had been making money and when the crash came he was in good financial shape.

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One of the inventive genius' pet ideas was that of super highways for express traffic. During the years ensuing he spent a good deal of his own money promoting the idea and it is probably that he is at lease in part responsible for the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut and the gigantic Harrisburg-Pittsburg highway project in Pennsylvania.

Three years later the formerly North Iowan was employed by the Yale and Towne lock companyin connection with a new type of liquor bottle he had invented. The bottle was so designed as to be impossible to refill and thereby it would keep many illicit liquor dealers from evading the federal taxes.

The lock company was interested in the scheme because there was a small key affair involved in the bottle.

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However the idea was not accepted and in time was dropped. He had also invented an aerial torpedo and later presented the idea of a superdreadnaught for the navy which would weigh 85,000 tons and would be powered with changeable Diesel engines. Neither of these plans was accepted.

Then, approximately a year ago, Lester Barlow began experimenting with the liquid oxygen bomb which gained him so much unfavorable publicity recently when it was demonstrated before members of congress with a herd of goats pegged out nearby.

The experiment was not a success and it left the former North Iowan in considerable ridicule. It did prove that he had gone a long way withhis "gimite" (named for his good friend Glenn Martin, for whose aircraft company he was employed as a consulting engineer on explosives) and that he might still be able to perfect it into the world's most powerful explosive.

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And that is the story of Lester Barlow. North Iowans who know him remember him as an honest and outspoken, if not downright blunt person. He is eccentric, but likeable. And above everything else, he is brilliant to the point of being a genius.

Among those Clear Lake people with whom the famed inventor still keeps in touch is his cousin Frank R. Barlow, with whom he was closely associated throughout most of the war. Occasionally he is able to visit in North Iowa with his relatives and old friends.

Lester Barlow's ever active mind is searching and questioning, always looking for something new, for a better way of doing something that's already being done. His is a keen mind and an active one. It will still produce ideas that will bring its owner more fame and wealth.

NOTE: Lester Pence BARLOW died at the age of 80 on September 06, 1967, Stamford, Connecticut. Funeral services were held in Clear Lake, Iowa.

  • Lester Pence Barlow obituary

  • Floyd Edward Barlow biography

    Photograph courtesy of Globe-Gazette

    Transcription and note by Sharon R. Becker, May of 2014



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