Atom Bombs and Oreos

Just outside the Village gates on Onondaga Street sits the L.A.B. building, built in 1953 for a testing laboratory and manufacturer of testing equipment. The firm has moved on, but its building remains, along with the mystery of how the company came to be called the L.A.B. Corporation.

In 1968, Bruno Wittkuhns, the firm’s president, offered this explanation:

“We were asked to submit six names for our new corporation to the state secretary. These names were not to resemble the name of any other corporation. We had chosen five names that were satisfactory, but we could not come up with a sixth.

“So, almost as an afterthought, we submitted the first three letters of the word ‘laboratory’. We all treated the sixth name as a kind of joke, so we were naturally shocked and disturbed when the name was approved and the other five rejected. However, the name has proven to be very valuable to us, because it is so easy for people to remember and so easy to spell. It is a very practical name.”

However, in a 1979 interview, L.A.B. product manager Joe Hubbard, the son-in-law of the founder, suggested that the initials actually stood for “Leave After the Boss.” And in 1991, L.A.B. general manager Jack Dority said that L.A.B. stood for “Leo And Bruno, the names of the founders of the company.”

I’m not sure about Leo, but Bruno was clearly Bruno August Wittkuhns, an engineer and inventor who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1924, and worked for the Sperry Gyroscope Co. on Long Island, New York. In 1933, he founded L.A.B. in Summit, New Jersey, with one P. L. S. Lum; Wittkuhns devoted his evenings and weekends to the new company, but continued to work for Sperry until 1939, when he resigned to devote his full energies to L.A.B.

About 1940, Wittkuhns, with his wife and children, began summering in Skaneateles. In 1953, with a married daughter already living here, Wittkuhns decided to move his entire company; he built the L.A.B. facility on Onondaga Street and brought L.A.B., and 23 families, to the village.

LAB employee Tex Smith demonstrates a testing device

L.A.B. specialized in testing products for their reactions to vibration, impact and pressure — and building the machines to perform those tests. During World War II, L.A.B. designed and built a vibration machine used to test the first atom bomb.

A more whimsical test subject was the Oreo cookie. The Nabisco company came to L.A.B. because Oreos were arriving at the store with too many crumbs in the packages; L.A.B. found this wasn’t due to jostling or improper handling, but to vibrations in the delivery trucks that caused the cookies to rotate in their package trays, spin against each other and rub off the embossed design.

Hail to thee, L.A.B., for saving the Oreo.

* * *

In 1968, Bruno Wittkuhns sold the L.A.B. Corporation to Mechanical Technology Inc. (MTI) of Latham, N.Y.; Mr. Wittkuhns died the following year. In 1997, MTI sold L.A.B. to the Noonan Machine Co. of Franklin Park, Illinois, and the business is now headquartered there.

* * *

Sources: “L.A.B. Corporation to Construct Plant Near Skaneateles” (Auburn) Citizen Advertiser, March 7, 1953; “L.A.B. Employees Honor Wittkuhns on Anniversary” Skaneateles Press, May 9, 1958; “L.A.B. Corporation to Remain Despite Sale to Albany Interests,” Skaneateles Press, July 18, 1968; “Bruno Wittkuhns, L.A.B. Founder, Dies Tuesday,” Marcellus Observer, May 1969; “L.A.B. Produces Test Equipment,” Skaneateles Press, 1979; “Four Firms Focus of Chamber Lunch,” Skaneateles Press, February 20, 1991. My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society and to David Furth, son of Robert Furth, Chief Draughtsman for L.A.B.

LAB Construction 1

Photos of the construction of the LAB building, from the collection of David Furth.

LAB Construction 2

And below, an LAB company dinner, possibly in the 1940s. In the center, seated between the two ladies, is Bruno Wittkuhns. Seated on the end to Wittkuhns’ right (our left), is Robert Furth.

LAB Dinner

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