A Midwest Fixture for More Than a Century

A Midwest Fixture for More Than a Century

May 3, 2019 -- What is today the Naval Power Systems business of Leonardo DRS in Milwaukee has been an important part of industry in the Midwest for more than 125 years.

In 1893, the Wright brothers, owners of an obscure bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, were a decade away from their introduction of the airplane. Henry Ford’s model T, which was to transform Detroit into the Motor City, would not become the world’s first mass-produced automobile for 20 years.

That year, Harry Henderson Cutler and Edward West Hammer formed the Cutler-Hammer Manufacturing Company in Chicago and, perhaps poetically, fashioned the first electric fan to be sold in the Windy City. The price was $25, equivalent to $706 today.

In 1899, the company re-incorporated in Wisconsin and moved its business to Milwaukee. As the 20th century dawned a year later, Cutler earned a patent for a self-starter for electric motors. His was one of the first starters not controlled directly by a human operator, and it launched the company’s history of more than a century in motor controls.

Construction of the Panama Canal was in full swing by 1900. Cutler-Hammer won the contract to design and implement the complex series of locks that changed water levels, allowing ships to pass between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

This development initiated a significant foray into the shipping and shipbuilding markets. In 1904, the company developed the first turret-turning controls for large guns carried by battleships. Cutler-Hammer installed this system on the USS Indiana under the company’s first contract from the U.S. Navy. So successful was the system that the Indiana set the world record for marksmanship in 1908 by achieving 10 direct hits in 10 minutes at a moving target.

The company continued its focus on the naval market, designing and delivering the first electric steering gear for Navy vessels in 1909, which was fitted on the USS Des Moines. The following year Cutler-Hammer completed its first design for a new class of ships. Under the first of many contracts with Newport News Shipbuilding, the company supplied the turret controls for the USS Delaware and all the Delaware-class battleships that followed. 

In 1917 the submarine became an important vessel for the Navy. Cutler-Hammer made several important components for fleet-class submarines of the time, including propulsion motors, charging generators, periscope hoists, bow and stern plane controls, steering and diving gear, and numerous auxiliary motors and controls.

The company also continued to invest in the motor controller market. By the 1920s it had obtained 28 patents for the use of vacuum tubes to control heavy current.

Cutler-Hammer received a contract order in 1934 for propulsion equipment for nine U.S. submarines. The direct-current contactors developed in 1936 worked so well on the program that some are still in production for use on subs today.

When World War II began, the U.S. accelerated its shipbuilding program, and Cutler-Hammer was a key manufacturer of critical components, especially control equipment for submarines. This relationship continued through the years with the Los Angeles and Ohio submarine classes carrying extensive complements of gear supplied by the company.

The land for the present DRS Milwaukee site was purchased in 1948, and construction began in 1950. Spanning 650,000 square feet and employing more than 600 people, the site currently houses the design, test, and manufacturing facilities for naval and marine power distribution, power conversion, motor controls, drives, and automation and control equipment.  Products from this facility on North 30th Street in Milwaukee have been deployed on every Navy combatant vessel delivered since 1952 when the plant opened.

In 1964, Cutler-Hammer formed the Power Distribution and Control Division. Fourteen years later, Eaton Corporation acquired Cutler-Hammer and renamed it Eaton Cutler-Hammer to maintain the corporate heritage. In 1986, Eaton purchased Consolidated Controls in Danbury, Conn., and merged the two acquisitions to form the Eaton Navy Controls Division, which developed products for submarine programs. Subsequently, the unit became a provider of power conversion equipment in addition to standard motor control gear.

DRS Technologies acquired the division in 2002, and today Leonardo DRS continues to support all its products in the fleet. Occasionally a customer will call to request a part designed two or three decades ago. In most cases, the business that began life as Cutler-Hammer 125 years ago will be able to manufacture the part.

Leonardo DRS Naval Power Systems continues to grow in product numbers, complexity and number of employees. That growth and the expanding mission-critical needs of our customers have necessitated the construction of a more modern and efficient facility.

Consequently, Leonardo DRS Naval Power Systems has begun work on a new site just outside of Milwaukee in Menomonee Falls. Here, DRS will augment an existing three-story, 120,000-square-foot office building with a new 350,000-square-foot high-tech production facility. It will house the design, test and manufacturing facilities for naval and marine power distribution, power conversion, motor controls, drives and automation/control equipment for the Navy as well as commercial and international customers. With completion expected in 2020, Leonardo DRS will ensure continuation of the Milwaukee area’s unique and enduring legacy of supporting naval power and ship building well into the 21st century.


Leonardo DRS considers energy-efficient facility operations and innovations among our highest priorities. It is in our culture to help our planet alongside our customers.

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