Lynde and Harry Bradley

Lynde and Harry Bradley were brothers who both dropped out of high school and founded one of the largest electronics companies in the country. They first used the proceeds of their success to improve their home town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later took to championing the cause of free markets and free men.

The brothers’ grandfather had been mayor of Milwaukee, and they grew up in a large house along Lake Michigan. Their father, however, lived a peripatetic life, moving from venture to venture but never grasping success. By the time Lynde was in high school, the boys’ mother had to take in boarders to pay the bills. Lynde was a natural engineer who spent his childhood tinkering with electrical mechanisms; he received his first patent at age 16. Penniless and with no prospects for college, he dropped out of high school and opened an X-ray lab, working with doctors and lawyers seeking diagnoses of wounds and accidents. His younger brother Harry frequently worked alongside him as an unpaid assistant.

Among Lynde’s first and most frequent customers was a Milwaukee physician named Stanton Allen, who became a surrogate father and mentor to the young man. It was Allen who backed Lynde’s first manufacturing venture: in 1901, for $1,000 in capital, he agreed to split equally the proceeds from sales of a rheostat, a device that controlled electrical current in machinery. (Lynde’s innovation, which he stumbled on in his teens, was to harness the variable resistance of carbon to act as both a conductor and resistor when compressed, creating what the company’s later promotional materials would call “velvet smooth” motor control.) Pursuant to their agreement, Lynde quickly patented the controller and assigned Dr. Allen half the rights, and the two formalized their arrangement, eventually creating the Allen-Bradley Company.

The company’s earliest products suffered from a design flaw—the heat generated by the controller disintegrated the carbon fly-wheels that made the mechanism work—and Bradley’s first manufacturing partner turned out to be a crook who was later jailed for embezzlement. But with his brother Harry now an employee, Lynde persevered. The company diversified its products to include circuit breakers, relays, control panels, and switches, and Lynde bought out Dr. Allen’s widow after his death (though in a mark of respect, he never removed Allen’s name from the company).

With the outbreak of World War I, the company expanded dramatically on the Allies’ nearly insatiable demand for electrical equipment to run ships, artillery firing mechanisms, and radio apparatus. By the end of the war, Allen-Bradley had expanded to fill nearly a city block on Milwaukee’s south side.

With six years separating them, the brothers were never confidantes, but their dramatically different personalities enabled them to establish a partnership that guided Allen-Bradley through its growth years. Lynde was quiet, retiring, and austere, a man who preferred to tinker in his labs and workrooms; he handled research and development of new products. Harry was gregarious, charming, and something of a bon vivant; he focused on sales and personnel management.

The brothers early on began to practice a kind of “welfare capitalism,” providing extensive amenities to their workers: a wood-paneled reading room, a sundeck, on-site medical care, and a company jazz orchestra. These amenities were not proof against labor strife, since the Bradleys resisted Allen-Bradley becoming a closed union shop. A vicious strike in 1939 saw bricks hurled through windows and dozens of protesting workers arrested—and incidentally, helped to awaken Harry Bradley’s interest in politics and industrial policy. By the 1960s, the company would grow into one of the largest electronics concerns in the country.

After a brief illness, Lynde died in 1942, and eventually most of his shares in the company were poured into a series of interlocking trusts that kept management of the company intact while providing income to Harry and other family members. Lynde’s wife, Caroline, worked with Harry to set up the Lynde Bradley Foundation (later renamed the Allen-Bradley Foundation), which Lynde had begun to establish, but had not completed, before his death. Early meetings of the board—which included Harry, Caroline, and a few Allen-Bradley stalwarts—were held infrequently, often over the phone. Charitable giving focused on local causes: St. Luke’s Hospital near Allen-Bradley’s southside plant was a regular beneficiary, as were the local YMCA and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

An interest in politics and public policy emerged early, which reflected Harry’s rock-ribbed conservatism. Harry was deeply anti-communist, a commitment that led him to become a founding member of the John Birch Society. He was also an early supporter of Robert Taft for president in 1952 and major backer of Barry Goldwater. He carefully monitored gifts to colleges and universities for any signs that the schools were spreading “communistic or socialist ideas,” and vetoed at least one higher education grant on those grounds. Through the company, he gave an annual gift to the Hoover Institution on the ex-president’s birthday. He supported conservative radio programs in the Midwest, as well as an Australian doctor, Fred Schwarz, who founded the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade.

Harry was keenly aware of the power of media, and Allen-Bradley sponsored a series of print ads espousing anti-communist views. Harry even toyed with buying the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel to provide a conduit for his anti-communist and pro-market views. But perhaps his most lasting gift to the nascent conservative movement was his frequent and early support for William F. Buckley’s National Review, which helped see the magazine through its financially rocky early years.

In 1965, more than 20 years after his brother, Harry Bradley died; William F. Buckley Jr. eulogized him in the pages of National Review as “a phenomenon” and “among the most adamant of men.” His death coincided with new government pressure on philanthropies that owned private companies to diversify their portfolios. Accordingly, many of the Bradley trusts were liquidated and the foundation began to separate itself from the company. In the 1960s and 1970s, public policy grants became more frequent, with grants to groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Morality in Media. The main giving areas, however, remained local causes like Marquette Medical School and St. Luke’s Hospital.

In 1985, however, Allen-Bradley was sold to Rockwell International, a leading defense and aerospace conglomerate, for more than $1.65 billion. The foundation—now known as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, to honor the founders and complete the divorce from the company—overnight ballooned from $14 million of assets to almost $300 million.

With the increase in size came a corresponding expansion in its mission. While still a significant donor to local causes, the board—which included a number of old Allen-Bradley management and associates—decided to expand its work in public policy issues, reflecting Harry’s belief in the free market as the source of prosperity and individual liberty and his opposition to communism. All along, it has been guided in its grant making by Lynde and Harry Bradley’s fundamental belief: that “the good society is a free society.”

—Justin Torres

Further reading:

  • John Gurda, The Bradley Legacy: Lynde and Harry Bradley, Their Company, and Their Foundation (Bradley Foundation, 1992)
  • John J. Miller, Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2003)


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