My father, Fred C. Koch, was 17 years old and a freshman in college when the Spanish influenza pandemic hit the United States. Then, as now, schools were closed, businesses disrupted and hospitals overwhelmed. In his hometown of Quanah, Texas, getting oilfield parts during the pandemic became such a challenge that drilling operations had to shut down. An estimated 675,000 people in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide lost their lives to the disease.
A few years later, after graduating from MIT, my father faced a serious challenge of a different sort. The engineering business in Wichita he had joined as a partner was struggling, even though the overall economy was booming. Both my father and Louis Winkler were talented men, but their firm was undercapitalized and had nothing to offer customers. Business was so bad that my father, unable to afford an apartment, resorted to sleeping on a cot in the drafting room. He was, as he put it, “dead broke.”
Prospects improved in 1927, when Fred developed a thermal cracking process that promised major benefits to the independent refiners who were his potential customers — benefits such as increased gasoline yields, less downtime and lower costs.
But there was a problem. Before he could sell his new process, he had to prove it worked.