Henry J. Kaiser

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This article is about the American industrialist and shipbuilder. For other uses, see Henry Kaiser (disambiguation).
Henry J. Kaiser
Born (1882-05-09)May 9, 1882
Sprout Brook, New York, U.S.
Died August 24, 1967(1967-08-24) (aged 85)
Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.
Occupation Industrialist, shipbuilder
Children Edgar Kaiser, Sr
Relatives Edgar Kaiser, Jr (grandson)
Henry Kaiser (grandson)

Henry John Kaiser (May 9, 1882 – August 24, 1967) was an American industrialist who became known as the father of modern American shipbuilding. He established the Kaiser Shipyards, which built Liberty ships during World War II, after which he formed Kaiser Aluminum and Kaiser Steel.[1] Kaiser organized Kaiser Permanente health care for his workers and their families. He led Kaiser-Frazer followed by Kaiser Motors, automobile companies known for the safety of their designs. Kaiser was involved in large construction projects such as civic centers and dams, and invested in real estate. With his acquired wealth, he initiated the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan, charitable organization.

Early life[edit]

Kaiser was born in this house near Canajoharie, New York.
Kaiser birth place2.JPG

Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, in Sprout Brook, New York, the son of Franz and Anna Marie (née Yops) Kaiser, ethnic German immigrants.[2] His father was a shoemaker.[2] Kaiser worked as an apprentice photographer early in life, and was running the studio by the age of twenty. He used his savings to move to Washington state on the west coast of the United States in 1906, where he started a construction company that fulfilled government contracts.[3]

In 1914 he founded a paving company, one of the first to use heavy construction machinery. His firm expanded significantly in 1927 when it received a $20-million contract to build roads in Cuba. In 1931 his firm was one of the prime contractors in building the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, and the Bonneville[citation needed] and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River. Plausibly only remotely related to his daring exploits in motor boat racing, while doing business among 'the six companies', he set up shipyards in Seattle and Tacoma, where he began using mass-production techniques, such as using welding instead of rivets.[3]

World War II[edit]

Henry Kaiser was an early advocate of bringing American aid to those suffering from Nazi aggression in Europe. In 1940, a full year before the then-neutral US had entered World War 2, Kaiser was serving as National Chairman of United Clothing Collection for International War Relief to provide much-need clothing for the refugees of Hitler's conquests of Europe, while the U.S. still fretted over preserving its 'isolationism.' .[4] Many leading industrialists, such as Henry Ford, were pro-Fascist and adamantly against the US entering that conflict until Dec. 7, 1941.

Kaiser fought Hitler far more specifically with what he is most famous for: the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California, during World War II, adapting production techniques that built cargo ships with an average construction time of 45 days. These ships became known as Liberty ships and were later supplemented in the mid-war by improved, larger and faster Victory ships. He became world-renowned when his teams built a ship in four days.[5][6]

The keel for the 10,500 ton SS Robert E. Peary was laid on Sunday, November 8, 1942, and the ship was launched in California from the Richmond Shipyard #2 on Thursday, November 12, four days and 15½ hours later.[7] The previous record had been 10 days for the Liberty ship Joseph M. Teal.[8]

A visit to a Ford assembly plant by one of his associates led to the decision to use welding instead of riveting for shipbuilding. Welding was advantageous in that it took less strength and it was easier to teach thousands of employees, mostly unskilled laborers and many of them women. Kaiser adopted the use of subassemblies in ship construction; formerly, hundreds of laborers crowded together to complete a ship. Though this practice had been tried on the East Coast and in Britain, Kaiser was able to take full advantage of the process by constructing new shipyards with this in mind.[9]

Other Kaiser Shipyards were located in Ryan Point (Vancouver) on the Columbia River in Washington state and on Swan Island in Portland, Oregon. A smaller vessel was turned out in 71 hours and 40 minutes from the Vancouver yard on November 16, 1942.[10] The Kaiser hulls also became America's smaller, more numerous "escort carriers", over one hundred small aircraft carriers employed in both the Pacific and the Atlantic theaters. The concepts he developed for the mass production of commercial and military ships remain in use today.[citation needed]

One problem with welded hulls, unknown at that time, was the issue of brittle fracture. This caused the loss of some Liberty ships in cold seas as the welds failed and the hulls would crack—sometimes completely in two. Constance Tipper was one of the first people to discover why the Liberty ships were breaking in two. Minor changes in design and more rigid welding control enforced in 1947 eliminated Liberty ship losses until 1955.[11] Through his membership in a group called the Six Companies, Kaiser also had a major role in the Joshua Hendy Iron Works of Sunnyvale, California, which built the EC-2 triple expansion steam engines for the Liberty ships. Kaiser and his associates organized the California Shipbuilding Corporation.[12]

Kaiser Permanente[edit]


At Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, Kaiser implemented the pioneering idea of Dr. Sidney Garfield of Kaiser Permanente. Opened on August 10, 1942, Kaiser Richmond Field Hospital for Kaiser Shipyards was financed by the U.S. Maritime Commission, sponsored by Henry J. Kaiser's Permanente Foundation, and run by Dr. Garfield. In part due to wartime materials rationing, the Field Hospital was a single-story wood frame structure designed in a simple modernist mode. Originally intended for use primarily as an emergency facility, the Field Hospital opened with only 10 beds. Later additions increased its capacity to 160 beds by 1944. The Field Hospital in Richmond operated as a Kaiser Permanente hospital until closing in 1995.[citation needed]

Kaiser's Richmond Field Hospital served as the mid-level component of a three-tier medical care system that included six well-equipped First Aid Stations at the shipyards, and the main Permanente Hospital in Oakland, where the most critical cases were treated. By August 1944, 92.2 percent of all Richmond shipyard employees had joined Kaiser Permanente, the first voluntary group plan in the country to feature group medical practice, prepayment, and substantial medical facilities on such a large scale. After the war ended, the Health Plan was expanded to include workers' families. To serve employees at his diverse businesses, Kaiser opened Permanente facilities in Walnut Creek, California, in Hawaii,[13] in Southern California, and eventually in many other locations.[citation needed] Since then, locations have opened in Dublin, California,[14] Livermore, California, Pleasanton, California, Martinez, California, Santa Clara, California, and Antioch, California.[citation needed]

Post-World War II[edit]

The Kaiser Center in downtown Oakland served as the headquarters of Kaiser Industries. Up to that time, it was Oakland's tallest building, as well as "the largest office tower west of Chicago".[15]

As a real-estate magnate, Kaiser founded the Honolulu suburban community of Hawaiʻi Kai in Hawaiʻi (where there is a public high school named in his honor) and a high school named in his honor in Fontana, California. Kaiser also financed the development of Panorama City, a planned community in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles.[16]

In 1945, Kaiser partnered with veteran automobile executive Joseph Frazer to establish a new automobile company from the remnants of Graham-Paige, of which Frazer had been president. It would use a surplus Ford Motor Company defense plant at Willow Run, Michigan originally built for World War II aircraft production by Ford. Kaiser Motors produced cars under the Kaiser and Frazer names until 1955, when it abandoned the U.S. market and moved production to plants in Brazil and Argentina. In the late 1960s, these South American operations were sold to a Ford-Renault combination. In 1953, Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland, manufacturer of the Jeep line of utility vehicles, changing its name to Willys Motors. In 1963, the name was changed again to Kaiser-Jeep, which was ultimately sold to American Motors Corporation in 1970. As part of the transaction, Kaiser acquired a 22% interest in AMC, which was later divested.[citation needed]

Kaiser founded Kaiser Aluminum in 1946 with the lease and eventual purchase of three aluminum facilities from the United States government. Over the ensuing decades, Kaiser Aluminum grew to become involved in virtually all aspects of the aluminum industry, including the mining and refining of bauxite into alumina, the production of primary aluminum from alumina, and the manufacture of fabricated and semi-fabricated aluminum products. In 1948, Kaiser established the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (also known as Kaiser Family Foundation), a U.S.-based, nonprofit, private operating foundation focusing on the major health care issues facing the nation. The Foundation, not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries, is an independent voice and source of facts and analysis for policymakers, the media, the health care community, and the general public.

Kaiser Permanente Federal Credit Union (Kaiperm FCU) was founded in 1952 and served employees of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, the Permanente Medical Group, Inc. and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. In September 2008, The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) selected Alliant Credit Union, based in Chicago, to purchase the assets of Kaiperm FCU of Oakland, California. The purchase and assumption was completed on September 26, 2008.

Kaiser Federal Bank was originally founded in 1953 as a credit union to serve the employees of the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals in Los Angeles, California, and converted to a federal mutual savings bank in 1999. Kaiser Federal Financial Group, Inc., is a Maryland corporation that owns all of the outstanding common stock of Kaiser Federal Bank. Kaiser Federal was renamed Simplicity; it was purchased by HomeStreet Bank in 2014.[17]

In the mid-1950s, Kaiser asked William Besler to convert his 1953 Kaiser Manhattan to steam. Besler completed this in either 1957 or 1958.[18] Kaiser did not like the remodeled car and left it with Besler.

In the early 1950s Henry Kaiser built an elaborate estate on the west side of Lafayette, California, 10 miles from his Kaiser Industries world headquarters in Oakland. Inspired by Hawaii, the main house entrance had a dramatic interior wood staircase suspended above a series of waterfalls. The living room had a massive lava rock wall with a cave-like fireplace. The property had a separate guest / pool house, and a children's cabin that could be accessed via a secret tunnel in the pantry of the main house. (This west Lafayette property, east of Upper Happy Valley Road near Los Arabis Road, is often confused with east Lafayette property on Reliez Station Road that was also used by Kaiser's family.)

March 14, 1951 Kaiser's first wife Bess Fosborough (whom he married on April 8, 1907) died. Kaiser married the nurse, Alyce Chester, who had cared for Bess (reportedly with his wife's blessing) on April 10, 1951 and adopted her son, who as Michael Kaiser attended nearby Lafayette public Vallecito School. But Kaiser's attention soon transferred to Hawaii, and in 1955 he moved his family there. (After Kaiser moved to Hawaii the west Lafayette Kaiser estate deteriorated and was eventually demolished; today the property is unrecognizable, subdivided into several homes.)

Kaiser spent much of his later years in Honolulu and developed an obsession with perfecting its urban landscape. He founded the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel, today known as the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and used bright pink Jeeps as resort transportation. Kaiser constructed one of the first commercially practical geodesic domes in the United States at this resort and used it as a theater.

In the mid-1950s Kaiser recognized that television could make Kaiser brand products known to the public.[citation needed] He worked with Warner Brothers head Jack L. Warner to develop WB's first television series, Cheyenne, sponsored by household products including Kaiser aluminum foil and Kaiser cars. To promote his Hawaii ventures, Kaiser induced Warner Brothers to copy the formula of its popular series 77 Sunset Strip as new TV series Hawaiian Eye. Though actually filmed at WB studios in Burbank, California, the show featured private detectives based at Kaiser's Hilton Hawaiian Village. Kaiser eventually bought and built a chain of radio and television stations which became known as Kaiser Broadcasting; some call signs included his initials "HK", such as KBHK TV44 San Francisco.[citation needed]


In 1967, Kaiser died at the age of 85 in Honolulu. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery on "Millionaire's Row", in Oakland, California.


Kaiser was involved in building civic centers, roads, and schools. He was part of the consortium that constructed the Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam. Kaiser is also noted for advancing medicine with the development and construction of several hospitals, medical centers and medical schools. His mining town of Eagle Mountain, California, part of the West Coast's first integrated mining/processing operation linked by rail to his mill in Fontana, California, was the birthplace of Kaiser Permanente, the first health maintenance organization. Fontana is home to another public high school named in his honor.[citation needed]

One of Kaiser's grandsons, Edgar Kaiser, Jr, was president of Kaiser Steel From 1981 to 1984, and briefly owned the Denver Broncos NFL franchise. Another grandson, Henry, is an ocean scientist and widely known experimental guitarist. In 1984, the Oakland Auditorium was renamed the Kaiser Convention Center in honor of Kaiser after a renovation that year.

A class of 18 United States Navy fleet replenishment oilers built in the 1980s and 1990s is named the Henry J. Kaiser class. Its lead unit, USNS Henry J. Kaiser (T-AO-187), the first U.S. Navy ship named for Kaiser, entered service with the Military Sealift Command on December 19, 1986.[19]

On December 1, 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver introduced Kaiser as one of 13 in California Hall of Fame in The California Museum, Sacramento, California.

He is a member of the Labor Hall of Fame.


  1. ^ Sawyer, L. A. and Mitchell, W. H. The Liberty Ships: The History of the "Emergency" Type Cargo Ships Constructed in the United States During the Second World War, Second Edition, pp. 2, 8-12, Lloyd's of London Press Ltd., London, England, 1985. ISBN 1-85044-049-2.
  2. ^ a b Immigrant Entrepreneurship: "German American Business Biographies - Henry J. Kaiser" by Tim Schanetzky retrieved January 31, 2015
  3. ^ a b Lavery, Brian. Ship: The Epic Story of Maritime Adventure (2004), Smithsonian. p. 317.
  4. ^ File:"WHAT CAN YOU SPARE THAT THEY CAN WEAR" "GIVE CLOTHING FOR WAR RELIEF". - NARA - 516124.jpg - Wikimedia Commons.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help);
  5. ^ Video: America Reports On Aid To Allies Etc. Universal Newsreel. 1942. Retrieved February 21, 2012. 
  6. ^ Sawyer, L. A. and Mitchell, W. H. The Liberty Ships: The History of the "Emergency" Type Cargo Ships Constructed in the United States During the Second World War, Second Edition, pp. 2, 8-12, 140, Lloyd's of London Press Ltd., London, England, 1985. ISBN 1-85044-049-2.
  7. ^ "Richmond 'Wonder Ship' To Test Pre-Fabrication Work", Oakland Tribune November 11, 1942, p. 1; "Kaiser Claims Second Record", Oakland Tribune, November 17, 1942, p1
  8. ^ Sawyer, L. A. and Mitchell, W. H. The Liberty Ships: The History of the "Emergency" Type Cargo Ships Constructed in the United States During the Second World War, Second Edition, pp. 8, 9, 122, 140, 145, Lloyd's of London Press Ltd., London, England, 1985. ISBN 1-85044-049-2.
  9. ^ Pursell, Carroll. Technology in Postwar America (2007), Columbia University Press, p. 16
  10. ^ "Kaiser Claims Second Record", Oakland Tribune, November 17, 1942, p. 1
  11. ^ Sawyer, L. A. and Mitchell, W. H. The Liberty Ships: The History of the "Emergency" Type Cargo Ships Constructed in the United States During the Second World War, Second Edition, pp. 10-11, Lloyd's of London Press Ltd., London, England, 1985. ISBN 1-85044-049-2.
  12. ^ Nugent, Walter; Ridge, Martin. The American West: The Reader, Indiana University Press, 1999, p. 244; ISBN 0-253-21290-1
  13. ^ "Kaiser Permanente Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific Health vie for Maui hospital merger". Pacific Business News. 25 August 2015. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  14. ^ "Kaiser to Build Hospital in Dublin, Calif.". SecurityInfoWatch.com. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  15. ^ The furniture of Sam Maloof, books.google.com[dead link]
  16. ^ Gregory Hise. Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (1999). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  17. ^ "Seattle Lender to Buy Covina’s Simplicity Bank - Los Angeles Business Journal". labusinessjournal.com. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  18. ^ Steamers Steam-Up Again, Sam Miner, Science and Mechanics, November 1961
  19. ^ U.S. Department of Labor (Labor Hall of Fame - Henry J. Kaiser), dol.gov; accessed February 23, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Stephen B. Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur (1998)
  • Cobbs, Elizabeth Anne. The Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil (1994)
  • Dias, Ric A. "Henry J. Kaiser: Can-do Capitalist, 'Government Entrepreneur,' and Western Booster", Journal of the West (Fall 2003) 42#3 pp. 54–62.
  • Dias, Ric A. "'Built to serve the growing West,'" Journal of the West (Oct 1999) 38#4 pp. 57–64, on Kaiser Steel
  • Foster, Mark S. Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West (1993)
  • Foster, Mark S. "Prosperity's Prophet: Henry J. Kaiser and the Consumer/Suburban Culture: 1930-1950", Western Historical Quarterly (1986) 17#2 pp. 165–184 in JSTOR
  • Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II (2012)

External links[edit]