Fluid power innovator dies at 96

Fluid power innovator dies at 96

Robert L. (Bob) Firth, age 96, of Edina, Minn., passed away December 27, 2014. Mr. Firth was a life-long fluid power engineer and inventor, with 14 patents to his name. He worked for Republic Aviation Corp. during World War II, testing mechanical equipment and hydraulic components used in the company’s P43 and P47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers. He was a self-made engineer, studying engineering at the New York City Public Library while working for Republic Aviation. After the war he worked at New York Air Brake Co., designing hydraulic pumps and braking systems and later became VP at Electrol Co. Inc.

Firth moved to Minnesota in 1959 to work for the Char-Lynn Co., after which he started the Fluid Power Products Div. for the Donaldson Co. Starting with nothing, he developed a business that has grown to more than $200 million in sales today, with three dedicated plants around the world.  He was also generous in donating his time, expertise, and wisdom as a founding member and past president of the International Fluid Power Society.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 70 years, Alva. He is survived by his brother, Henry Firth, his children Diane Meier (Tom), Laraine Swanson (Bill), Barbara Firth-Arnold (Daryl Arnold), Bob Firth, Jr. (Nancy) and Nancy Zaenger (Paul), 13 grandchildren 13 great-grandchildren, and his devoted caregiver and friend, Dawn Cole.

Long-time close friend Pliny Smith revealed, "When I met Bob, he was heading up the Fluid Power Product Division at Donaldson Co., reporting directly to Frank Donaldson, Jr.  Bob was responsible for developing a full line of hydraulic filtration products, a strong base of customers, and to bring in sales.  He once said, it all started with “one man, one desk.”  With Bob’s extensive hydraulic experience and industry contacts, he was the perfect man for the job. Bob knew what was lacking in the hydraulic filtration industry product offering at the time and Bob set out to fill these gaps."

He continued, "Bob was a true coach and mentor. He would take the time necessary to teach and  entrust you to do the job.  Bob made the rules, but he was definitely not a micro-manager — except for maybe at home. Bob always treated his employees fairly and expected the best from you.  When the economy softened in the early 1980s — and layoffs were needed — Bob gathered all his employees in the same room to tell them exactly what was going on and why.  Bob did not want rumors to circulate or for people to become distracted with things out of their control."

Smith also offered that Firth had a passion for fishing — especially for Muskie. "While Bob was working for New York Air Brake, he would often travel to their offices in Watertown, N. Y., located on the St. Lawrence River. While in Watertown, he would take advantage of the Muskie fishing in the Thousand Island region of the St. Lawrence.  Bob was very creative and would make his own lures out of old spoons and broom handles.  Bob even invented and patented the “Fish Trap,” which was used a bent wire to holdi the hook in place and out of the weeds until the fish hit.  The Fish Trap is still sold today by one of the big Muskie Shops in Wisconsin.

"Bob also had a love affair with Long Island and surfcasting Montauk Point. There, he might catch blackfish, blues, striped bass, porgies, or fluke, and he always did well. In addition to surfcasting, Bob also loved clamming, catching crabs in crab nets, and finding oysters. Bob would bring home live lobsters and let them crawl around the kitchen, snapping at his children."

Memorial gifts can be made to the IFPS Chapter 5 Past Presidents Fund by emailing Jeanne Morphew at Hennipin Technical College, or to the Fluid Power Educational Foundation.

Click here to leave a tribute in the funeral home's online guest book.


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