Vaunted steel research lab closing


BETHLEHEM, Pa. - It was, at its peak, the gathering place for the steel industry's best minds.

From eight buildings on 1,000 acres behind gates, in labs where workers had to get permission to put up window curtains and communications were strictly controlled, the staff of Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Homer Research Laboratories conducted secretive research in areas ranging from process metallurgy to ceramics and thermodynamics.

But as Bethlehem shrank into a shell of its former self, so did the lab, starved for funding. It hung on as one of Bethlehem's last operations in the Lehigh Valley as the steelmaker went through bankruptcy and sold its facilities to International Steel Group Inc. in 2003.

Mittal Steel Co. bought ISG April 15, and one of its first consolidation moves will be to close what once was the world's largest steel research center. A Mittal spokesman, Dave Allen, confirmed Thursday that most of the remaining employees - about 75 - will be moved to a research center in East Chicago, Ind., by year's end.

"The whole thing is very sad," said Craig Bartholomew, a steel historian who lives in Lower Macungie Township, Pa. "But I could see the whole thing coming. It was just a matter of time."

The laboratories, opened in 1961, developed products and techniques for Bethlehem Steel for decades. In its early years, Homer Labs attracted up-and-comers like Thomas Eagar, who arrived as a research engineer in 1974 with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I was excited to go there," recalled Eagar, now a professor of materials engineering at MIT. "There were a lot of very competent people there."

But Eagar soon soured on the attitude of managers, who emphasized volume over quality. The company also ignored threats from foreign producers, wrongly believing the United States still dominated the industry, he added.

Eagar was put off by the company's labyrinthine rules, such as the inch-thick manual that dictated to whom he could write letters. Messages to higher-ups outside his department had to be "ghostwritten" by his bosses, he said.

Eagar said a fellow Homer Labs scientist got into trouble for covering his office windows with tin foil and dark cloth so he could view X-rays. Window curtains were a perk controlled by the company, and the scientist did not qualify, he said.

Eagar quit in 1976, convinced poor management was killing Bethlehem Steel. "I have mixed feelings. I wouldn't want to bring it back the way it was," he said. "If you could take the good people and manage them well, it would be a fantastic place."

Homer Labs fell on hard times in the 1980s. "The company stopped funding the site in the 1980s, when it couldn't afford it any more," Bartholomew said.

In 1986, Bethlehem Steel sold most of the lab buildings to Lehigh University. The complex now consists of three buildings that have 220,000 square feet of lab space as well as offices and test sites.

One building features a miniature cold rolling mill. The mill, a third the size of the one at the Sparrows Point complex once owned by Bethlehem Steel, is used to test methods of rolling steel. The 70-foot-high mini-factory also has a 10-ton electric furnace and robotic welders.

Walter Bargeron saw Homer Labs from two perspectives - as a brand-new Bethlehem Steel employee, and as a top executive. He came to the "beautiful campus" of Homer Labs as a research engineer in 1969, soon after earning his doctorate in metallurgical engineering from the University of Michigan.

He found the lab atmosphere "too tame." He transferred to Bethlehem's plant in Lackawanna, N.Y., and remained in the research department, but did his work in the plant. "Just reading and researching in a lab wasn't my cup of tea," he said. "I much preferred getting my hands dirty."

Years later, Bargeron became Bethlehem Steel's vice president of technology, a position that put him in charge of company research - including Homer Labs. From 1991 to 1996, lab director Malcolm Roberts reported to Bargeron. Bargeron said he fought "to the death" to maintain research funding, even as the company struggled.

"We felt very strongly that we had to have that capability if we were going to service tier one customers," Bargeron said. "We did manage to maintain until the end, when I left, a fairly strong research presence, though much, much smaller than it was at the beginning."

The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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