Professor Fink and the Search for the Holy Grail

Columns From: Products Finishing, , from Products Finishing magazine

Posted on: 5/1/2014

Location of first chrome plated parts remains a mystery as Columbia University searches for lost door knobs.

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Vernon Burr and Mrs. Colin G. Fink holding a set of doorknobs which were the first objects to be chrome plated.

I’m a huge fan of the Indiana Jones movies, so in the weeks spent getting our Sur/Fin preview edition together, I imagined myself wearing a fedora and cracking the whip just like Indy would while hunting down an historical electroplating artifact.

The journey started with the premise that, since Sur/Fin is in Cleveland and near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what if we came up with a list of whom might be the first inductees in the Plating Hall of Fame, if there ever was one.

While researching the history of electroplating, we came across a college professor in the early 1900s who many say was instrumental in developing the first chrome plating technology, as well as teaching some of the best minds who eventually advanced the plating industry to where it is today.

And in doing so we found ourselves searching Indiana Jones-style for the ‘Holy Grail’: the first reported part ever chrome plated back in 1924, which turned out to be the doorknobs to Professor Colin Fink’s classroom at Columbia University.

The doorknobs were taken off and placed in the chemistry museum at Columbia following Professor Fink’s death at age 71 in 1953. Where the doorknobs are today was the quest we spent nearly a month on, with numerous phone calls, emails and danger … actually no danger, but that’s what you get in Indiana Jones movies, so we can only imagine.

Professor Fink was born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1881, and began his career at General Electric, where he was the company’s lead research chemist. In 1921, he became head of the Division of Electrochemistry at Columbia, with an emphasis on studying metallurgy and plating. His research was extensive, writing more than 200 scientific papers and holding numerous patents.

But on April 3, 1924 Professor Fink did something that others at the time said had never been done before in a commercial process. Using his patented “Solution 60” process, Professor Fink and laboratory assistant Vernon Burr took the knobs off the classroom door and chrome plated them, eventually putting them back on the door at 101 Havermeyer Hall in Columbia’s chemical department.

The purpose, Professor Fink would write later, was to see how the chrome plating would stand up to corrosive chemicals carried through the air, as well as on the hands of thousands of students and faculty who pulled on them each time they came to one of his classes.

The Columbia Spectator newspaper wrote that Professor Fink’s doorknobs attracted quite the attention when he first plated them, with students stopping by to see the shiny metal objects. Eventually, the attraction faded—but not the finish—and they stayed on the door for the next 29 years until Professor Fink’s death in 1953.

The Columbia chemistry department held a ceremony with Professor Fink’s wife whereby the knobs were removed and placed in the Chandler Chemical Museum at Columbia’s Havermeyer Hall, along with hundreds of other artifacts of research and invention.

Over time, however, pieces of the museum were moved and relocated, and not everything was documented—including Professor Fink’s long-forgotten chrome-plated doorknobs.

So to find out where the first recorded piece of history of commercial chrome plating now sat, we first sought out Holly Evarts, director of strategic communications and media relations for Columbia’s engineering department, who got a quick laugh out of our stated challenge.

“We are about to celebrate our 150th anniversary and have been looking for them, too, but no luck,” she said. “I’ll let you know if we find any, but I’m pretty doubtful.”

So we rang up a few chemistry professors.

“You might inquire to lecturer Luis Avila, he is in charge of the museum,” said Louis Brus, a professor of Chemistry at Columbia.

We tried Avila, and he was busy looking for the item, too.

“I need to review a few boxes that may contain the doorknobs, which I hope I will do during spring break,” he said. “I hope the doorknobs have not been discarded; unfortunately the museum was not properly dismantled.”

Somewhere on some shelf in some classroom at Columbia sit the doorknobs that started it all. Bumpers were soon chrome plated, as were a trillion other parts since that day in 1924. It was people like Professor Fink who helped get plating where it is today, and which is why we added him to our list of initial inductees into the “Plating Hall of Fame,” which you can read about on p. 34.

We will keep searching for the doorknobs. Indiana Jones never gave up, even when the Nazis were after him. Of course, I do recall he maybe fell off a cliff and was poisoned or some such, but he was not deterred.

It’s an important piece of history to the coating industry. After all, Professor Fink’s plating discovery did open a lot of doors for others, if you know what we mean.

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