John Martin Wolfskill, W3QKT

Engineer, Inventor, Ham Radio Enthusiast, Farmer, Friend, Husband and Father


John Martin Wolfskill contributed much to the success of the Bliley Electric Company. Several of his inventions truly changed the direction of frequency control in radio communications. Unfortunately, many of these influences are known only to a limited number of historians, and living engineers and technologist. To those who knew him, there is little doubt about his genius and love of the industry.

Below is a biography of the life of John Martin Wolfskill written in the year 2002 by his youngest daughter, Sallie Wolfskill Smith, in collaboration with her sister, Pat Wolfskill Mays. She has invested many hours in the research and writing of this work. Sallie agreed to share several dozen family photos of John and his family. These can be found in the Wolfskill Photo Album along with several from the company archives. I greatly appreciate the generosity of the time and energy she has put in to bring this valuable contribution to this site. I am sure my father, F. Dawson Bliley, would be very pleased to see his old friend share this site with him.

Chuck Bliley
June 20, 2002

The Life of John Martin Wolfskill
By Sallie Wolfskill Smith
Copyright (C) 2002, Sallie Wolfskill Smith

If you are familiar with the name of the Bliley Electric, you will undoubtedly recognize the name of John Martin Wolfskill, an innovative electrical engineer who was influential in the development of quartz crystal technology. Upon noting his death in their December 21, 1981 issue, Electronic News wrote, "Mr. Wolfskill was instrumental in the application and use of third harmonic crystals and pressure-mounted crystals, and campaigned for the crystal industry's first intensive effort for better-aging crystals." There are others more qualified than I to comment on his contributions to the crystal industry. I am here to tell you about my father, the man behind those accomplishments. (Ref. Par. 1)

John Martin Wolfskill was born at 9 a.m. on May 16, 1908, in the Pennsylvania Dutch farming community of Millbach in Millcreek Township, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. His parents, William P. Wolfskill and Sallie E. Stump, were in their mid-thirties when they had John, their sixth and youngest child. The Wolfskill family lived on a farm in an area where Amish and Mennonite neighbors later settled. As a farmer's son, Dad was expected to work in the garden, the tobacco fields (his father's "cash" crop), and with the livestock, along with his older brother Bill and their four sisters (Lucy, Gertrude, Sarah and Naomi). This outdoor farm environment was the perfect setting for Dad's young inventive mind as he rigged up many experiments and contraptions, much to the consternation of the smaller farm animals as well as his mother. The missing tip of his left middle finger was a lifelong reminder of one such activity gone awry. (Ref. Par. 2)

Young John was particularly proud of one experiment. He connected an electrical hand generator to a metal plate, and then placed corn kernels on the metal plate. When an unsuspecting chicken stepped up to the corn kernels, Dad cranked up the power to the plate and watched as the jolt of electricity caused the chicken to fly straight up into the air! Needless to say, the elder Mr. Wolfskill terminated the experiment when he figured out why his chickens weren't laying eggs. (Ref. Par. 3)

In addition to working the farm, Dad was expected to do well at school. A 1913 photo shows him as the youngest member of Person School, Millbach Springs, Millcreek Township, with a total of 17 students including his brother Bill and sister Naomi. The older Wolfskill girls earned credentials from the nearby teacher's college in Millersville, and Dad's sister Lucy was later one of his teachers. Dad's father was a farmer and cigar maker by occupation, but he was also a member of the local school board. Dad always said that he was first in line for punishment when it came to demonstrating the effectiveness of the school board's disciplinary system. Knowing well the personality behind his red hair, freckles, and inventive mind, I doubt that many of the punishments were undeserved. (Ref. Par. 4)

Despite the rigors of the farm environment, it held an allure for Dad that continued throughout his life. But farm life was not the "calling" for Dad as it was for his brother Bill. At the age of 17, Dad graduated from Millcreek Township High School in Newmanstown on June 3, 1925, one of 22 students in the graduating class. Intent on a career in electrical engineering, he pursued studies at the Pennsylvania State College (now The Pennsylvania State University). Dad was soon nicknamed "Red" for his hair, and was often teased for his youthful appearance. He lived in a boarding house at 306 College Avenue for which he paid $10 a month. Tuition was approximately $500 a year. During his Penn State years, Dad was a student member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Penn State Club. He graduated June 18, 1929, with a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering. (Ref. Par. 5)

After graduation, at the age of 21, Dad landed a research engineer position with Bell Telephone Laboratories at 463 West Street in New York City. A September 17, 1929 photograph shows him as one of 31 young men in the Bell Labs "Introductory Survey, Group 3 - Section 1". Many years later, at a 1970 IEEE International Frequency Control Symposium, Dad would give a retirement speech for Roger Sykes, fellow colleague of those early Bell Lab days. Dad referred to himself as a neophyte engineer working for Mr. Lane in Apparatus Development and to Sykes as another neophyte engineer working for Dr. Mason in the Research Department. The two met in the crystal cutting shop of Bell Labs and remained friends and colleagues over the years. (Ref. Par. 6)

Those days in New York City must have been both exciting and bewildering for a young man from the country. Dad rented a "large beautiful room" at 601 W. 110th Street, but found the bustling city a poor substitute for the fresh air and open spaces of the farm. In his free time, Dad visited clubs in Greenwich Village, and attended lectures and concerts. He enjoyed chess, calling it the "game of thinkers and mathematicians." He also enjoyed tap dancing: "I got a pair of shoes fixed up with taps on, and that is my pleasure." He read widely, but enjoyed Pennsylvania Dutch stories the most, commenting on one such book: "It sure is funny and it is about the only kind of book and story I get a good laugh out of. I have lived that life and the stories written are so closely related that I am carried back to those times." (Ref. Par. 7)

Wondering where his work endeavors might eventually lead him, he wrote: "Designed a new type of crystal holder and it works very well. Will have to redesign it slightly to decrease the number of parts so it can be made for about $1.00. I don't know whether a person will ever get anywhere doing this stuff but it gives one a comfortable living." However, the economic difficulties of the times, coupled with his relatively short tenure, led to Dad's lay-off from Bell Labs. A laboratory notebook issued on April 1, 1930, and returned on September 19, 1932, suggests that Dad's employment roughly corresponded with those dates. (Ref. Par. 8)

Unemployed, Dad continued to pursue the ideas relating to quartz crystals that he had begun at Bell Labs. While visiting Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress Exposition (a.k.a 1933 Chicago World Fair), he saw a Bliley product display. Intrigued with this company that was "working on the same stuff" in which he had an interest, Dad submitted a paper to QST Magazine in the hope that F. Dawson Bliley would notice it. The resulting article, "Oscillators Using 14-Mc. Quartz Crystals," appeared in the December 1934 issue. Dad then sent a letter to Dawson, dated January 28, 1935, referring to his recent publication. Dawson responded, requesting that Dad appear for an interview February 4 or 5, stating the need "for a man who is a physicist as well as a mathematician, who can intelligently analyze the various special angles and cuts of crystals for future development." On February 19, 1935, Dad was hired as Staff Engineer and thus began his 38 year career with Bliley. (Ref. Par. 10)

So at the age of 26, Dad left the farm once again and moved to Erie, boarding in a house owned by Mrs. Anna M. Dunlap at 357 West 10th Street. I believe that summer he met my mother, Jean Hartman (born Justine Jean Hartman) and thus began a lengthy courtship which culminated in their marriage nearly ten years later on December 8, 1945. My mother was born in Erie on January 30, 1911, one of seven surviving children of Nicholas and Sarah Mantsch Hartman. At the time of their dating, Mom was employed as a bookkeeper at Erie Bronze Company,19th and Chestnut Streets. She was also, however, a talented amateur artist. She and my father shared Germanic roots, and a love for horseback riding and picnics in the country. (Ref. Par. 10)

In August of 1936, the year following his employment with Bliley, Dad wrote: "just got an offer from Bell Labs. They want me back. Can't decide which is best. There are no definite factors by which to decide. Two more telegrams, three special delivery letters and two other letters. They sure are trying to trick me into their offer...but I like the present work and believe it has a lot of possibilities. Can't decide which is best." Dad also made some personal observations on his work..."I am a very slow worker and the results I produce are never spontaneous, but represent a process of building and rebuilding that takes months. An idea sometimes hits me with a bang but the development is usually a slow process. I am constantly harrowed by the prospect of running out of ideas and material to work on." And so, over the years, as ideas would spring to mind, he filled index cards and notebooks with notes, sketches, and calculations which might someday merit further development work. (Ref. Par. 11)

In those early days, there were about 12 people working at Bliley. Dad recalled having a small room in which to "play around" with his ideas. Dawson approved the purchase of an inexpensive test oscillator which Dad connected to a transmission line and a crystal. Using headphones, because they were more sensitive than a meter, Dad would hear a click when he tuned in different frequencies. This work on the "overtone" crystal led to his first U.S. patent application 38,134 dated August 27, 1935. Due to a patent interference suit by the Radio Corporation of America, the patent was not granted until May 9, 1939 as U.S. Patent 2,157,808. In the meantime, a second patent application 98,431 was filed August 8, 1936, for a variable frequency holder. This patent, 2,079,540, was granted May 4, 1937. Dad quickly moved from the position of Staff Engineer, at a 1936 salary of $2,145, to Chief Engineer and Director of Research. (Ref. Par. 12)

Meanwhile, Dad officially joined the ranks of amateur radio operators. While he may have had a crystal radio set at the family farm in the early 1930's, it wasn't until 1937 that the first listing of Dad's call sign, W8QKT, appeared in the Radio Amateur Call Book Magazine following his purchase of a National 110 receiver. (Dad's call sign was later changed to W3QKT.) (Ref. Par. 13)

With the outbreak of World War II, Bliley became heavily involved in the production of crystals for the military. Of their suppliers, the government found that Bliley crystals were remarkably stable and true to calibration. Mechanically lapping crystals to frequency was time consuming and skilled work. It was difficult to produce enough crystals to meet the military's demand. But Dad had developed an etch-to-frequency process, code-named "X-Lap", which allowed an employee with minimal training to produce correctly calibrated crystals using an acid etch bath and a slide rule type calculator. In a patriotic move, Bliley Electric reluctantly gave the military free license to the process so that enough producers could be set-up to meet the government's war needs. The process became documented as a military specification for crystal units. Dad recalled that this period was "quite a time." And, even though Bliley was not able to gain a competitive advantage with the process, Dad said he was just "so happy doing what he was [doing], accomplishing something." A patent for the process, U.S. Patent 2,364,501, was finally issued on December 15, 1944. (Ref. Par. 14)

The business climate of the postwar years required Bliley to adapt their product line. Once again, one of Dad's patents played a significant role in Bliley business. During the war, Western Electric/Bell Telephone Laboratories had free use of Dad's patented low-frequency resonant-pin crystal holder (U.S. Patent 2,240,453 dated April 29, 1941), and they wanted to continue using that technology. After months of negotiations, the two parties reached an agreement which allowed free use of all of each others' patents. According to Dad, his former colleague Roger Sykes was instrumental in persuading Bell Labs that they needed to sign the agreement. (Ref. Par. 15)

Meanwhile, Dad had purchased, in November 1942, the farm of William and Mary L. Schwarz for a cash transaction of $4,500. The 56.55-acre property was located on the west side of the McKean Road (later renamed Grubb Road) in Millcreek Township, Erie. (It is interesting to note that Dad's childhood home was also in a township named Millcreek.) After their marriage in 1945, my parents spent their time improving the property. The farm, as they called it, was Dad's refuge from work and the link to his childhood. The frame farmhouse was my mother's domain while Dad concentrated on stocking the barn and outbuildings with animals and machinery. Notable farm fixtures were his two Farmall tractors complete with mower decks, plows, and cultivators. (Ref. Par. 16)

Dad's father was an occasional visitor to the farm until his death on October 16, 1953. Dad's mother, however, had died on March 7 of 1943, shortly after Dad had purchased the property. To accommodate guests and visiting relatives, my parents purchased a moderately-sized mobile home and situated it just down the hill from our house. This also served as Dad's "retreat" and home for his ham radio equipment. (Ref. Par. 17)

In 1946, Dad was promoted to Vice-President in charge of Engineering at Bliley, a position he would hold for the next 27 years. By this time he had been granted 16 U.S. patents. An additional 13 U.S. patents would follow in the years 1949 through 1962. Of these, Dad considered the "overtone" crystal patent (U.S. Patent 2,157,808) and the "resonant pin" holder patent (U.S. Patent 2,240,453) to be his two developments that had the greatest impact on the crystal industry. (Ref. Par. 18)

Gradually adding acreage to their original farm parcel, my parents amassed a total of 420 acres, much of which was wooded. Dad derived much pleasure from his property and spent a good deal of his weekend time out-of-doors. When beavers damned a stream on the property to form a pond, Dad bought a used aluminum rowboat, built a wooden pier, and stocked the pond with bluegills and yellow pike so we could spend summer days fishing. Each winter, when a wet area in the fields formed a shallow pond, Dad would haul lawn rollers of water to create a slick surface for ice skating. He then built a little wooden shanty and outfitted it with a cast iron stove so we could warm ourselves and brew hot chocolate. Dad's favorite "toy" was a Willys Jeep which would carry him, and anyone game enough to ride with him, bouncing and jostling over the fields and through the woods. (Ref. Par. 19)

Though my parents never had a son of their own, Dad was "father" to many boys who, by one circumstance or another, found guidance from him that their home didn't provide. Their presence was justified by an hourly job mowing lawn or clearing brush, but it was clear that these boys enjoyed coming to the farm as much as Mom and Dad enjoyed having them. When Dad decided someone was responsible and trustworthy, they were allowed to drive the tractor, and the acres of fields around the house provided endless hours of mowing for those inclined to do so. For others, the attractions were hunting and trapping in the woods and streams. Some young men came and went over a summer; others forged friendships that spanned the years. (Ref. Par. 20)

Dad loved toys and gadgets, and frequently came home with magic tricks, battery operated toys and small scientific instruments of the kind you would find in mail-order catalogs or small variety shops. His fascination with toys can perhaps be explained by the lack of such frivolous things in his childhood. In his 1931 journal, at the age of 23, he wrote: "I think I shall buy either a small steam engine or an electric train for Christmas, I always wanted one of those things and never had the money to buy one." In his later years, he bought a small scale replica of a Sterling engine (external combustion) which he proudly operated for all who would watch. Dad also liked being at the forefront of new developments. He brought skateboards home from California long before they were popular in Erie, and he purchased one of the early mass-produced snowmobiles from the Canadian Bombardier company. (Ref. Par. 21)

Sadly, in 1955, Dawson died of a heart attack while vacationing in Florida with his family. Requesting in his will that those who come after him maintain "a friendly atmosphere, good dispositions and cooperation," Dawson established the framework of the company for the years following his death. First, he specified a Board of Directors to include his wife Isabelle, as Chairperson, with remaining members being G. Malcolm Oldham [brother-in-law and mechanical engineer], George E. Wright, John M. Wolfskill, Joseph F. Haller and Donald F. Stout. Second, he established that the presidency of the company first go to George E. Wright, Bliley's first employee, until he reached age 65, and then pass to John M. Wolfskill, until he reached age 65, after which one of Dawson's children could then assume the presidency, should they have the "aptitude and experience." Third, Dawson requested that his children be trained for "responsible positions in the direction of the business." In the years following his death, Dad and the other officers remained loyal to Dawson, supporting Isabelle and mentoring her children into the firm. (Ref. Par. 22)

In 1967, Bliley Electric Company bid goodbye to its home in the Union Station Building and moved into a newly constructed plant at 2545 West Grandview Boulevard with a work force of 175 employees. Six years later, on February 15, 1973, Dad at long last assumed the presidency after more than three decades with the firm. Just a few months later, on June 15, 1973, he retired at the age of 65. He continued to serve the company as a member of its Board of Directors for several more years. His many well-wishers wrote: "your professional presence and influence in the frequency control industry will be sorely missed...thank you for the high quality products and the excellent technical advice and assistance we have always received"; "Through the years you have been one of the outstanding contributors to the field of frequency control...your impact at Bliley has been significant in making it the outstanding company in frequency control devices"; "Certainly Bliley will miss you and the capable leadership you displayed over the years." (Ref. Par. 23)

Once retired, Dad seemed content to just enjoy more time at home. Although he still remained involved in company activities via Bliley Electric's Board of Directors, he was relieved of the day-to-day development work which had preoccupied him for so many years. A vacation cottage in nearby Conneaut Lake provided a weekend retreat, and there were occasional trips to California and Las Vegas. But for the most part, my parents enjoyed a quiet retirement, in general good health. And so it was a shock for Dad when my mother suddenly passed away in early 1980. Just short of two years later, on December 15, 1981, Dad joined my mother. He still had red hair when he died. (Ref. Par. 24)



  • Patent Intro & Index
  • Vari-X Oscillator: Patent 2,256,932
  • 200 kc Variable Crystal: Patent 2,240,449
  • Dual Variables & Oscillator: Patent 2,240,452
  • Change History with 200 kc Variable Crystals?

    Please mail any comments, corrections or additions to the author, Sallie Wolfskill Smith through me at I am sure she would like to hear from you.

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