Fluke, John Maurice Sr. (1911-1984)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 4/11/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7699
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John M. Fluke Sr., was founder of the John Fluke Engineering Co., later known as Fluke Corp., and was a pioneer in the Pacific Northwest electronics industry. He also was deeply involved in a wide range of industry, civic, and cultural affairs, and an outspoken advocate of free enterprise and education. He received several honors and awards for his contributions to the community, the state, and the electronics industry. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named John Fluke Sr. first Citizen of 1978.

Tacoma Childhood

John M. Fluke was born on December 14, 1911, in Tacoma, Washington. His forebears were German immigrants who first settled in Pennsylvania. His grandparents were farmers in Oregon, and his parents moved to Tacoma in about 1907. His father died of appendicitis in 1916, when John was five. John was a math and science whiz as a youngster, fascinated by electricity. He recalled, "As a teenager, I was enamored with the electrification system established by the Milwaukee Road ... to get trains over mountains when steam-generated engines just couldn't make it" (Tewkesbury).

He graduated from Stadium High School in 1928 and helped supplement the family larder variously with a newspaper route, working in a door plant, and working at the smelter on Commencement Bay.

Learning Electricity

He entered the University of Washington in 1930 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1935. While at the university, he was a member of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, became company commander, and emerged with a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve.

Meanwhile, the Great Depression already had dragged on for six years and degree or not, jobs remained scarce. Postponing that problem for a while, John won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1936.

Upon graduation, he found a job with General Electric Co. in its Schenectady, New York, plant. While at GE, he received a top engineering prize for his work with reducing the manufacturing cost of electrical-switch silver contacts.

He roomed for about a year with a half-dozen other young engineers, one of them David Packard (1912-1996), and it was the start of a life-long friendship. Like John Fluke, Packard would go on to create a West Coast electronics empire with William Hewlett (1913-2001), also starting from a humble shop.

Starting a Family

In 1937, now with some financial stability, he married his college sweetheart, Lyla Schram. Three children would be born to the Flukes: Virginia, John M. Jr., and David Lynd.

Germany had attacked Poland in 1939 to launch World War II, and Ensign Fluke was called to active duty in 1940. He was assigned to the Navy's Bureau of Ships electrical division in Washington, D.C., working for its director, Capt. (later Adm.) Hyman Rickover (1900-1986), controversial "father of the nuclear navy." Fluke was promoted to commander by age 32, was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work on a variety of difficult shipboard electrical-equipment problems, and discharged in 1946.

He rejected an offer to remain in the Navy with Rickover's nuclear program and also rejected an opportunity to return to GE. He chose instead to engage in a consulting-engineer capacity for American Machine and Foundry (AMF) in Buffalo, N.Y. He developed critical improvements in its automatic pin-setting machine for bowling alleys, for which he ultimately was granted eight patents. The AMF payoff was "substantial" (Tewkesbury), and after two years, it enabled him to start the John Fluke Engineering Co. in his basement workshop in Springdale, Connecticut. He had two employees. His first product was an electronic power meter, and his first customer was GE.

Moving to Seattle

In 1952, now up to six employees, Fluke decided to return to the West Coast. After rejecting advice from his old friend Packard (who was already a well-established Silicon Valley pioneer), to consider moving to Palo Alto, Packard asked him: "Why would you want to move your company to such an intellectual vacuum as Seattle?" (Levine). Fluke responded that he "just wanted to move home" (Harper).

He bought an old cabinet shop at 1111 W. Nickerson Street in Seattle, a couple of blocks east of the Ballard Bridge, and was soon back in full production after being shut down nearly a month for the move.

Explosive Growth

Fluke outgrew the Seattle shop and moved the company, first to Mountlake Terrace, a north Seattle suburb, and then again in 1981 to its $42 million, 500,000-square-foot campus in Everett, about 30 miles north of Seattle.

Along the way, Fluke remained in the forefront of the exploding high-tech world, with newer and better measuring instruments. He acquired other companies and, as an early and strong supporter of foreign trade, expanded internationally. Fluke moved into the China market in 1973, soon after President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) made his historic visit to Beijing in 1972, signaling a revolutionary turn in U.S. Cold War policy.

In 1956, Fluke helped form the Northwest Electronics Manufacturers Association (NEMA), which merged with the Western Electronics Manufacturers Association in 1959, which, in turn, became the American Electronics Association (AeA) in 1978. AeA, with offices on Washington, D.C.'s K Street, became the industry's major lobbying arm.

John Fluke Sr., a big man at six-feet-four and 240 pounds, was "crusty and outspoken" (Ramsey), not afraid to voice his opinions about global markets, free enterprise, the electronics industry, transportation, or the Defense Department.

Killing "Sacred Cows"

In 1966, when serving as chairman of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, he urged civic leaders to kill the "sacred cows" that were impeding the area's progress and "spawned a transportation mess." He lambasted "unreal taxing practices ... state and local governmental structures ... educational system, and called for "streamlining of city and county government," and "re-evaluating teachers' efforts" (Moody).

In 1979, after a trip to Asia, he warned that Japan, South Korea, and other Far East nations "threaten to surpass ours unless we get off our "socialist binge" and become more productive" (Burchard).

Fluke remained a constant but constructive critic of the U.S. Defense Department and in 1970 served as the civilian chairman of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird (b. 1922) to recommend improvements.

Fluke said, "Defense buying by the D.O.D. was poorly organized, unnecessarily expensive, chaotic." He said the Civil Service "has become too much of a home for tired employees. ... I would prefer the spoils systems. At least, the organization might get purged once in awhile" (Burchard).


Fluke also was a self-confessed "inveterate tinkerer" (Tewkesbury). He designed the family home in northwest Seattle, overlooking Puget Sound, handled the contracting himself, and harnessing the power of a creek with a "mini-hydroelectric dam" (Tewkesbury) to generate 10 kilowatts of power.

In 1983, John Fluke Sr. turned the now-formidable firm over to his son, John Fluke Jr., who had spent his teen years and early adulthood in and around the company. The Fluke Co. was sold in 1998 and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Danaher Corp., a Washington, D.C., holding company. In 2006, The Fluke Co. employed 2,400 people in two design and manufacturing operations in the United States and Europe, with sales and service operations in more than 100 cities throughout the world.

John Fluke Sr.'s other business, civic and community activities and concerns, meanwhile, covered a wide range. He was a co-founder and first president of the South Snohomish County Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, a founding member of the Seattle Area Industrial Council, and a trustee of the Boy Scouts Chief Seattle Council, active in the Seattle Symphony and in a long list of other civic and cultural organizations.

Champion of Education

Education was one of his primary concerns. He donated $1 million to the University of Washington in 1982, to fund a professorship in manufacturing engineering, and was a major contributor to the $15.8-million Washington Technology Center on campus, built in 1988 and called Fluke Hall. He was a major supporter of Junior Achievement, and Lyla and John Fluke Jr. donated $1 million to JA's Free Enterprise Society in John Fluke Sr.'s memory, as well as a $1 million endowed professorship to the Stanford University College of Engineering. Lyla and her son, David Fluke, also made a $1 million gift to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Fluke was a founding member in 1983 of the Washington Roundtable, a pro-business reform group composed of the chief executives of the state's largest corporations, as well as several other business-development groups. He was on the boards of many other civic, cultural, and business organizations, including the Seattle-King County Safety Council, Pacific Science Center Foundation, and Seattle Rotary. He was named in 1985 as one of the inductees to The Washington State Centennial Hall of Honor -- the 100 most influential figures in the state's history who "made outstanding contributions of national or international significance" (Columbia). The state Senate passed a resolution honoring his accomplishments. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors chose John Fluke Sr., as First Citizen of 1978.

John M. Fluke Sr., died on February 11, 1984, after suffering heart problems for many years. He is survived by his wife, Lyla; daughter Virginia Fluke Gabelein; sons John M. Fluke Jr., and David Lynd Fluke, and three grandchildren.

Sources: Bruce Ramsey, "From Today, the Boss Is Called Fluke, Jr.," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 15, 1983; Don Tewkesbury, "Electronics Tycoon Would Rather Do It Himself," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 13, 1981; Dick Moody, "Killing of 'Sacred Cows' is Urged," The Seattle Times, April 20, 1966; Boyd Burchard, "Fluke Speaks Out on DOD," Ibid., March 24, 1971, p. F-6; Boyd Burchard, "U.S. Seen Losing Technology Role," Ibid., August 21, 1979; "The Washington State Centennial Hall of Honor," Columbia, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 1989); Ken Harper, "AeA's Founding Forces -- West by Northwest," AeA (formerly American Electronics Association) website (http://www.aeanet.org/PressRoom/yoTnXyihJjBcaIjdVzhH.pdf).

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