The Story of James G. Biddle

14 May 2020

“The completion of fifty years in business is not unusual; That a firm has covered this span under the direction and inspiration of one individual is more noteworthy.”

writes author Harrie A. Bell

As I sat down to read the Biddle Company Report at Mid-Century, I prepared myself for another corporate brochure. You know the type? Not the type of thing you’d want to read on the beach, and certainly not earning a spot on this week’s The New York Times’ Best Sellers list.

But this was no ordinary corporate brochure. No, this was the story of a bright man – a problem-solver, a father of five daughters, a driven salesman – who became an extraordinary leader and pioneer in the electrical industry. This was the story of James G. Biddle.

Where does our story begin?

It was early 1895 and a young James Biddle – just 27-years-old – was looking for a new hustle. After leaving his job – frustrated by the impersonal approach to sales and waning financial status of his former employer – Biddle concluded that “a business founded on a firm belief in personal relationship, and an intensive desire to perform a special service not elsewhere available, offered promise of success”.

And he did just that.

In February of that year, Biddle opened his doors and began importing and selling scientific and electrical equipment from his office in Philadelphia.

Except, you’d rarely find him behind his desk. Biddle was a networking ace – travelling thousands of miles each year – to make connections with scientists at colleges across the country, as well as utility and industrial workers in the United States. Driven by the simple fact that he could give his customers an instrument “not elsewhere available” and backed by an unmatched level of personal service, which many businesses simply did not extend.

As industrialization was rapidly expanding across the country and the economy was hitting an all-time high, Americans began to realize they could design and manufacture their own electrical equipment, rather than importing it. Of course, Biddle jumped on this opportunity – adding instruments manufactured right here in the United States to his sales repertoire.

And if Mr. Biddle wasn’t actively seeking out new connections, he was searching for the next greatest test instrument to add to his ever-expanding catalog.

With a strong business model, centered on consistent, personalized and unique service, it comes as no surprise that his one-man enterprise would ultimately grow to become the organization it is today.

Where is the Biddle Company today?

Great question. It all comes back to the insulation resistance tester and Sydney Evershed. Remember him? If not, we’ve got all the details about the man behind the insulation tester right here.

Anyways, it was 1910, and Mr. Biddle was about to get the sales lead of a lifetime from Dr. Rowland – a close friend and Head of the Electrical Department at Drexel University. Rowland introduced Biddle to a new device for measuring insulation resistance in megohms. While the demonstration alone was probably exhilarating for Biddle, it was the next statement that was truly exciting. The British manufacturers were looking for a distributor in the United States.

Well, a trip across the pond was clearly in order. After meeting with the manufacturer, Evershed & Vignoles, in London, Mr. Biddle made an agreement that would forever change the course of the company.

The Biddle firm was now the sole distributor of Megger® Testing Instruments in the United States.

Did someone say Megger?

Yes! In case this is your first glimpse into the world of electrical test equipment, let’s just take a quick look at the word “Megger”. For starters, it’s a registered trademark that comes from the phrase megohm-tester. Back in Biddle’s days, it was simply the trade name of the insulation tester. Easy enough, right? Obviously, it’s also the name of our company now, but we’re getting to that part of the story. Patience, please.

So, how were sales?

Not great, honestly. In his defense though, no one in America knew what a “Megger” tester was at that time, so he was at a bit of a disadvantage. But Biddle was about to change that.

He sent the insulation tester set to five of his buddies at top electrical manufacturing and public utility companies with instructions to test the instrument out for a month and send it back if they didn’t like it. Simple enough. With no obligation to purchase, the “Megger” would sell itself.

And that it did. Only one of the units was returned. It was an untraditional sales tactic, but it worked. From then on, it would become the sole sales practice of the Biddle company – encouraging customers to try it out for themselves and decide whether they want to keep it (or not).  

What was Biddle like when he wasn’t selling?

Well, I sat down (on the phone) with his grandson, John James, to find out for myself. Turns out, he was a down-to-earth guy with a great sense of humor. Not surprising in the least.

As a young child, John often went over to his grandfather’s house to play checkers – always taking the win. Many years later – and much to John’s surprise – he discovered that Biddle had been letting him win every time.

With five daughters and fifteen grandchildren in total, I can only imagine the beautiful chaos that may have taken place at family gatherings in the Biddle household in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.

At one particular family get together, Polle – Biddle’s granddaughter – brought home her fiancé, Douglas Buck, to introduce to the family. Doug Buck came from a long line of successful men, and everyone, including James Biddle, knew he was an all-around outstanding guy. But when Polle introduced him to her father, Biddle looked at her, stuck out his hand and said, “Is this the best thee could do?”  

When he wasn’t making people laugh, he was staying active. Biddle was an avid golfer and a founder of the Ozone Golf Club. He was also a member of the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Zoological Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Institute of Engineers, the Union League, and the Engineers Club of Philadelphia. I’m not sure how he had time for all of this, but he clearly knew how to manage a calendar.

He didn’t stop there though. No, he was also a dedicated member of the Religious Society of Friends – descending from a long line of Quakers. Plus, he was a member of the board of Friends Hospital in Frankford and was the President of the Board of Trustees at Cheyney State College. Okay, I think I named them all.

I’m just going to say it. This man is an inspiration. If he doesn’t inspire you to want to be a better salesman or leader, at the very least, he certainly encourages me to fit a little more into my everyday schedule. More service, more laughter, more friendship – we could all use a little more of that, right?

Now, back to business.

Well, it should come as no surprise that Biddle continued to sell the “Megger” insulation tester, but what he was really doing was introducing Americans to the concept of preventative maintenance. This instrument could detect the very first signs of deterioration – allowing users to prevent premature equipment failure. “If you need it, you will pay for it,” Biddle often repeated, “even if you do not buy it.”

Many years later, demand in the United States reached an all-time high, and the US Navy became the largest single customer for insulation testers. Unfortunately, World War II was in full swing abroad – inhibiting Evershed & Vignole’s ability to manufacture an adequate supply of insulation testers, and the Navy was becoming increasingly more impatient. With the threat of losing their largest customer, the Biddle company was granted permission by Evershed & Vignoles to manufacture “Megger” testers in the United States. This was big, folks.

Eventually, Biddle Instruments would become incorporated into the Megger family of brands. That’s the story of another blog, though. This is the story of James G. Biddle.