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Inventors, We Have Had Lots of Them

—by: Jim Bennett


irmingham has had a lot of inventors over the years including Mary Anderson who came up with the windshield wiper and Erskine Ramsay’s rotary car dump for coal mines but did you know a local man is credited with developing a rescue vessel for submariners?

His name was James W. Justus. Driven by the desire to rescue trapped sailors and to recover the property loss in the sinking of commercial ships carrying gold and gem-filled safes, he began work on a plan in 1938 to pull both from the sea floor.

James W. Justus

James W. Justus

Working through the Deep Sea Salvage Corporation, Justus took out patents in the U.S. and six foreign countries on a rescue vessel unlike others previously envisioned. It was a huge metal cylinder made of steel with welds strong enough to take deep sea pressures. In the cylinder were two grappling hooks which ceased the sunken submarine’s hatches and by means of various pressure releasing devices a water tight connection was made through which 8-10 sailors could pass through on each dive without getting wet.

Propeller-drive motors moved the vessel into position. To use the device, ships and submarines must be equipped with a port or hatch opening to fit the rescue cylinder. Merchant ships also would require a safe to be built into the vessel where recovery could be made from both sides, depending on how the ship settled to the bottom.

Associated with Justus in the project was J. M. Sponsler of the TCI Engineering Department of U.S. Steel who lived in Central Park. About a dozen local businessmen and engineers invested in the project.

The idea came to Justus after 21 men were lost in March 1915 on the US Submarine F4 off Hawaii. Being a land lubber he was not inhibited by the perils of the sea. He moved from a farm near Swainsboro, Georgia to Birmingham to be near a supply of steel. His plans were transformed into a working model at a Fairfield foundry.

The Justus Diving Bell

The Justus Diving Bell

"If I had spent my life at sea, I would probably have thought an apparatus to do the trick was impossible," he said, but not knowing the sea—I probably would say I had not seen more than a bucket of water up until that time and I haven’t seen much more since—I was sure it could be done."

Justus tested his device in the water-filled Ketona Quarry. The device was also tested at the Navy’s New London, Connecticut submarine base in 1939 but sent back for further refinements.

World War II delayed further developments while Justus worked on subs at Key West to learn more about them. With the help of the Snyder Tank Company, work resumed on a new and improved version of the diving bell in 1947. The hull was reinforced and additional buoyancy tanks added. The newer version was capable of diving 1,000 feet.

While other companies began making similar equipment for the Navy, Justus never gave up. In 1954, he developed a salvage rescue machine called the "hydrocopter" to seek treasures from old ship wrecks. It, too, was fabricated by the Deep Sea Rescue and Salvage Corp. of Birmingham. Justus by this time had moved to Miami.

The list of Birmingham inventors goes on including Andrew Jackson Beard, the city’s first black millionaire, who invented an automatic train car coupler but died in 1921 in the poor house but that’s another story.

Sources: Birmingham Post, July 3, 1947; Birmingham Post, April 1, 1937; Birmingham News, July 27, 1948; Birmingham Post-Herald, December 29, 1954.



History Quiz – What Connection do These Famous
Faces Have With Metro Birmingham?

Famous Faces Metro Birmingham

1. Birmingham’s Parliament House Hotel, built at a cost of $5 million in 1964, attracted an investment group that included actress Doris Day, James Lane of Huntsville and William D. Sellers, chairman of Baggett Transportation Company. The need for a large hotel in the emerging medical center was obvious and the ultramodern Parliament House was instantly popular. It was torn down in 2008.

2. Dianna Ross of the Supreme’s was sent to live with her grandparents in Bessemer in the mid-1950s when her mother, once a school teacher there, came down with tuberculosis in Detroit. Dianna moved back to Detroit when she was 14. A nephew of Mrs. A. G. Gaston later married Diana Ross’s sister.

3. After decades of decline, the Redmont Hotel was purchased in 1983 by an investment group made up of NBA players, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) and Ralph Sampson. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 27 of that year. A $7 million dollar renovation led to a grand re-opening in 1985.

4. Charlie Pride, best known as a country and crossover singer, began his career as a professional baseball player in the Negro leagues as a pitcher with Memphis and Louisville. Late in 1953, he and another player, (Jesse Mitchell), were traded to the Birmingham Black Barons for a team bus. "Jesse and I may have the distinction of being the only players in history to be traded for a used motor vehicle," Pride mused in his 1994 autobiography.

5. Davy Crockett, the king of the wild frontier, almost moved to Jefferson County in 1815 when he and three of his friends visited Williamson Hawkins in Jonesboro. Crockett, who later settled in Lawrence County, Tennessee, was killed at the Alamo in 1836. Although romanticized in books and movies, the real Davy Crockett preferred to be called David, dressed elegantly and was a passionate defender of Indian rights.

6. Charles Lindbergh, one of the most popular figures of his day, became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in his plane Spirit of St. Louis on May 20–21, 1927. Later that same year on October 27, he visited Birmingham landing at Roberts Field located just west of Birmingham-Southern College where I‑59 currently runs. It was Birmingham’s primary airport from 1922 to 1950. Lindbergh came at the invitation of Glenn Messer.

7. In 1934 Bonnie and Clyde paid a visit to a drug store just opening its doors for the day in Arab for a coke, cigars and some other needs. Upon leaving, they asked directions to Birmingham where they were suspected to have robbed a bank in Tarrant City, according to the FBI. Clyde’s real name was Clyde Barrow.

8. Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, was special guest at Birmingham’s 50th anniversary parade on October 24, 1921. He rode in the parade in a Premocar, which was being manufactured in Birmingham at the time. He also reviewed the rest of the parade from the 20th Street balcony of the Tutwiler Hotel. He was the first U.S. Senator to be elected president.


Best Laid Plans Don’t Always Work Out

Birmingham Buildings That Never Were

Shepherd Center

Rendering of the proposed Shepherd Center in 1991.


ometimes things just don’t work out the way you planned. That was the case with several high profile building projects that just didn’t seem to get off the ground, so to speak.

Take the proposed 72-story Shepherd Center for instance. This mighty edifice was slated to be built along with an adjoining 44-story structure next to the Daniel Building on the Southside back in 1987.

The twin towers were proposed on that block because FAA height regulations of 454 feet don’t apply south of the railroad tracks.

It was to cost Shepherd-Sloss Realty Company $200 million and provide Birmingham with 2.5 million square feet of floor space. The project was proposed by Everett Shepherd, Jr. who, with his partners, has just sold Brookwood Village.

The Birmingham office of Gresham Smith and Partners provided schematic plans and a skyline concept for the project. The two towers, which would have dominated Birmingham’s skyline, had signature illuminated crosses marking the upper floors as a symbol of Shepherd’s faith.

The project never moved forward, however, although as late as 1994 a billboard still stood at 21st Street and Second Avenue, South showing a rendering of the proposed towers sitting on block 121, between there and the corner of 20th Street and First Avenue, South.

Roden Hotel

Rendering of the proposed Roden Hotel in 1913.

When the Shepherd Center was first proposed, Shepherd was in talks with the Alabama Health Services Foundation about making the Kirklin Clinic an anchor tenant, along with State Farm Insurance. The Foundation chose to build a building of its own closer to UAB while State Farm constructed a headquarters building in Wildwood near I‑65 and Lakeshore Parkway.

Another project that also had a shaky start was the proposed 12-story Roden Hotel, construction of which began in 1913 at Fifth Avenue, North and 18th Street. Work was halted in 1914 and the building was never finished.

It was being financed by a group headed by Benjamim F. Roden, owner of the B. F. Roden Grocery Company who also founded the Avondale Land Company, and helped found the Birmingham Street Railway Company.

The hotel was designed by William C. Weston and was located on the former site of the Roden residence which had been demolished to make room for the high rise in 1913. Over the next year, its 12-story steel frame was erected but backers ran out of money and the building remained a skeleton until 1917 when it was dismantled and sold for scrap during World War I. The war-time demand for steel allowed the project to net $150,000 for its investors despite never opening for business.



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