Biographical / Historical
James Cunningham (1815-1886) was born in County Down, Ireland to Arthur and Ann Cunningham. He came to the United States in 1833 from Canada seeking work in the New York City area, where he had an uncle practicing architecture. In Canada, Cunningham had worked in woodwork design in a carpenter's shop east of Toronto in Cobourg, Ontario. Cunningham returned to Canada via Rochester, New York. While in Rochester, he was introduced to George Hanford and J.H. Whitbeck, entrepreneurs who set up the first coach-making shop in Rochester in 1834.
From 1834 to 1838 Cunningham worked as an apprentice and journeyman for George Hanford and J.H. Whitbeck. He formed a partnership with two of his fellow-workers, James Kerr and Blanchard Dean. Together they bought out Hanford and Whitbeck and made cutters, known as one-horse open sleighs and buggies. In 1842 Kerr and Blanchard resigned, and James Cunningham assumed full responsibility.
Cunningham married Bridget Jennings in 1838, and they had three children: Augustine, Joseph, and Margaretta. Cunningham's son, Joseph (1842?-1914) joined his father in the company and as a result, the company reorganized in 1866 as James Cunningham and Son. Joseph Cunningham became a full partner in 1868. Rufus Dryer (1846-1937) became a partner in 1875 when he married Margaretta Cunningham in the same year. There were branch offices with display rooms in Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City, Topeka, Denver, and San Francisco. In 1876, Cunningham carriages and a hearse won prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
In 1882, the firm was incorporated as James Cunningham, Son and Company. It was the largest industrial enterprise in Rochester, New York, both in its plant area and in capital. The firm continued to make carriages until 1915. Joseph Cunningham and Rufus Dryer retired in 1909, and the company, which had become a partnership, was reincorporated. Augustine Cunningham, son of Joseph Cunningham, was president, James Dryer (son of Rufus Dryer) vice-president, and Francis Cunningham (son of Joseph Cunningham) was secretary and general manager.
In 1908 the company began automobile production, not for the popular market, but for the type of customer that bought its carriages. The company did not mass-produce their automobiles. Intially, it made only automobile bodies and assembled the rest of the car from engines, transmissions, axles, and radiators made by proprietary companies. By 1910 it produced the entire automobile. In 1916 Cunningham produced a V-8 engine, and the Cunningham car became outstanding for its clean, classic lines. It was the first car to not have running-boards, using instead steps of brass-framed aluminum.
In the late 1920s Cunningham entered the aviation business and created a subsidiary, the Cunningham-Hall Aircraft Corporation. The primary aim of the corporation was to build an airplane that would combine stability with speed. The first Cunningham-Hall plane designed with these requirements was a modified biplane: the lower wing was considerably larger than the upper and slotted, so that a current of air could be made to flow between its surfaces. This enabled the plane to land at low speeds. It was first tested in the small town of LeRoy, New York. Cunningham-Hall continued to make aircraft until 1938. Its X-14324, produced in 1934, was a low-wing monoplane made entirely of metal. The company also produced primary trainers, a six-place cabin plane, other passenger and cargo craft, and experimental planes for the Army and Navy. By the early 1930s the company had ceased to produce automobiles and funeral carriages/hearses.
Over the years Cunningham made a wide variety of products. During World War II, Cunningham found a temporary role in defense production. Prior to the war the compaay had produced a variety of odd products: safety belts for aircraft, diving helmets, even belt buckles for Boy Scout uniforms. During the Civil War the company made carriages for the Union armies, and the First World War, ambulances and automotive windlasses for observation balloons. More significant had been its experience of producing armored and tracked vehicles. In March 1928, Cunningham's first tank was tested at Aberdeen, Maryland. Equipped with a revolving turret and armed with a 37 millimeter cannon and a .30 caliber machine gun, it traveled twenty miles an hour, faster than any tank produced up to that time. In 1933, Cunningham developed a tank track, with light-weight rubber-block treads that allowed for even greater speeds. Cunningham also developed experimental half-tracks, cargo carriers, armored cars, and a weapons carrier for a 75 millimeter Howitzer.
In 1940 James Dryer retired. The corporation was dissolved in 1941 and replaced by a partnership, with Augustine and Francis Cunningham as co-partners. After World War II, the firm produced small farm and garden machines such as sickle-bar mowers, tractors, and rotary tillers. Cunningham also designed and produced a complete line of plumbing fixtures for house trailers in a constant effort to retool and redefine itself in the post-war years.
By 1952, the firm met Andrew W. Vincent, an electrical engineer with Stromberg-Carlson in Rochester. Vincent devoted himself to perfecting a small dial telephone system. The heart of this system was the crossbar switch. The company acquired Vincent's initial designs and patent applications and hired him as a consultant. The company restricted its production to creating prototypes of switching devices. The Cunningham crossbar was versatile. It had the ability to switch electrical information from low-level DC signals to 100 megacycles, reliably and at high speeds.
In 1968, Peter F. Cunningham, then president of the company, sold controlling interest to the Gleason Works, a Rochester-based manufacturer of machine tools. Under Gleason Works, the company was renamed Cunningham Corporation. In 1977, all Cunningham-related activities ended.