founder of the Coleman Company
William Coffin Coleman was born in Chatham, New York, on May 21, 1870; his family moved to a farm in Labette County, near Mound Valley, Kansas, when he was about eleven months old. His father died when he was 11, after which his mother moved the family to Parsons, where he attended high school. After graduating from the State Teacher's College at Emporia in 1893, he taught school at Ottawa University for a year and served as principal of Blue Rapids schools for another year before enrolling at the University of Kansas Law School; he ran out of money before he could finish law school, however, and became a traveling typewriter salesman in order to pay his bills.
While on a selling trip in Brockton, Alabama, Coleman came across a gasoline-fueled lamp made by the Irby-Gilliland Company of Memphis, Tennessee, that gave off such a bright glow he could actually read by it. Impressed, he bought about a thousand of the lamps and decided to sell them instead of typewriters. He made his first sales calls in the small farming community of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, but soon learned that the townspeople had an extreme distrust of gasoline-powered lamps because a previous salesman had sold similar defective lamps and then skipped town. Not willing to be stuck with his inventory but unable to afford traveling to another town, Coleman decided to try leasing the lamps for $1 per week and servicing them himself; if a lamp failed the customer would not be required to pay. The idea worked, and Coleman was soon taking more orders for lamps than the company could supply.
In 1901 Coleman borrowed $1,000 from his brother-in-law and founded the Hydro-Carbon Light Company. By 1903 he had purchased Irby-Gilliland, as well as the patent rights to its lamps, and had begun working to improve the lamp itself. He moved his company to Wichita, Kansas, in 1905, and introduced the Coleman Arc Lamp that same year. The Arc Lamp proved so efficient that it was used to illuminate a night football game; Admiral Richard Byrd had an Arc Lamp with him when he became the first man to reach the South Pole, and the mutineers from the HMS Bounty used Arc Lamps to illuminate their huts on Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile, Coleman continued to improve his lamp, and to introduce new products; a portable table lamp was introduced in 1909, and the now-familiar Coleman Lantern was introduced in 1914. The Hydro-Carbon Light Company became the Coleman Lamp and Stove Company in 1913.
The company got a major boost during World War I, when the federal government provided enough money and materials to produce over one million lamps for use by farmers, who often had to work well into the night in order to maintain food supplies for both civilians and soldiers. Coleman introduced a wide variety of portable gasoline-powered appliances -- toasters, coffee pecolators, clothes irons, etc. -- in the 1920's, but the Great Depression cut deeply into sales and most of those product lines were short-lived. Coleman retooled its lines to produce ammunition and other military supplies during World War II, but its biggest contribution was made after the military asked Coleman to come up with a portable stove that could be easily carried by troops, that was efficient, that could burn a variety of fuels, and that would work equally well in both arctic and desert temperatures. The Coleman G-I Pocket Stove became standard equipment for every U.S. soldier, and was used in every battlefield in all three theatres of the war (Europe, Africa and the Pacific).
William Coleman (who was always known as "W.C." by his employees) was replaced as chairman of the board by his son Sheldon in 1951, and died in Wichita on November 6, 1957. The Coleman Company was purchased by Ronald Perelman in 1989, and then by Sunbeam in 1998, but is still a world leader in portable camping and other recreational equipment. Although most Coleman manufacturing facilities have since been moved out of Wichita, the original Wichita home of the Hydro-Light Company still stands, and serves as a museum today.
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This page was last updated on February 20, 2014.