From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.
PROVOST LANG, OF MESSRS. JOHN LANG & SONS, JOHNSTONE.
NOTHING is more discouraging to a young man of talent than the knowledge that the highest positions in his trade or profession are monopolised by an aristocratic class. It has been said, and with a large measure of truth, that the enthusiasm of the great Napoleon's army sprang from the fervent faith of each private soldier that he carried in his knapsack a future marshal's baton. Aristocratic birth was nothing and merit was everything in Napoleon's system of promotion. Many of his highest and most trusted commanders had served in the ranks. The great Emperor's wisdom was justified by events; he laid under contribution to his enterprise the whole military genius of France, and surrounded himself with a staff of soldiers as brilliant as ever figured in the annals of war. In this principle of his Napoleon not only showed a military genius, but also displayed splendid political sagacity. A great national interest, whether it be politics, science, art, or industry, ought to command the whole ability of the people. Wherever the privilege of birth or wealth inherited obtains precedence over merit there the welfare of the State suffers. The British people have not been exempt from such misfortunes, as recent history testifies; but, happily, there is one department in our national life in which merit alone is the passport to power, and that is industry.
Accumulations of wealth in the hands of families controlling long-established businesses notwithstanding, there is always an open door to the man of talent. The young man of original gift may, in a few years, outstrip the oldest industrial firm. Value is the sole test of acceptance in the market. So stern impartiality gives confidence to genuine talent; the young, especially, delight in the challenge which respects only strength and fitness. Industry says to all her sons, "Produce wealth and you shall have power and influence and fame!" But it may be answered that the markets are glutted; every industry is already crowded with workers. That may be so, and yet room be found for fresh ability. For this is the age of mechanical invention, of industrial progress, of commercial development. Make a new thing to serve an old purpose better than any in the market; shorten the labour process, economise the expense of production or distribution, and the market suddenly opens wide to receive you. That is the open sesame to the treasure-caves of our modern world. What a field is there; not an industry exists but might be vastly improved, not an avenue of distribution but might be shortened. Many an old industrial leader sighs for the energy of youth when he views the vast field open to the young men of the present day. If young men need encouragement from example, the history of such firms as that of which Provost Lang of Johnstone is the head affords ample instance.
In the year 1874 a capable workman named John Lang, who had risen to the position of foreman in the works of Messrs. Shanks, Johnstone, bethought him that he might gain a position in the industrial world on his own account. He had not much capital, but he had ability, pluck, and some fresh ideas on the subject of iron-turning. With this equipment he ventured on entering the great arena of engineering industry, and built small premises in Laigh Cartside Street, Johnstone. He took with him his sons John and Robert, and together they worked to develop a business.
At first the Messrs. Lang undertook any kind of engineering work they could get; but gradually they discovered a special line in the making of lathes. This discovery led to far greater success than ever they had even wished. The little machine shop of about 70 by 30 ft. was gradually extended till it filled up the whole space between Mary Street and Laigh Cartside Street. Nor has the process of extension ceased, but goes on with even greater speed. The firm feued, in 1899, 15 acres on the other side of Mary Street, and erected splendid machine shops and a modern foundry on part of the ground, the whole plan of the new buildings indicating that further extensions are both possible and anticipated.
Though to Mr. John Lang, senior, belongs the credit of founding the firm, it is to the energy and enterprise of his sons, Messrs. John and Robert Lang, that those extensions are largely due. Mr. John Lang, the Provost of Johnstone, is the better known and senior of the partners. Born in Johnstone while yet his father was a working man, Provost Lang received no more than an ordinary elementary, education at Quarrelton School, under the tuition of a worthy schoolmaster named Lithgow.
When about fourteen years of age he was apprenticed as a draughtsman with Messrs. Shanks & Co. He, however, was not wholly content with what knowledge of his craft could be obtained in the drawing-shop, and attended Glasgow University for instruction in mathematics, chemistry, and engineering. Practical duty curtailed his University career, and instead of returning to college in the winter of 1872-73 the young engineer became a draughtsman with a Glasgow firm.
In 1874 he was called home to take part in the starting of the new business, the rapid growth of which we have briefly sketched. For several years business duty required the greater part of Mr. Lang's energy, and fully occupied his time; but all through his life he has maintained a strong interest in religious and social movements. At an early age he became a Sabbath-school teacher, and for many years has been superintendent of Johnstone Established Church Sunday-school. He has great faith in work among the young.
In 1893 he was asked to stand as a candidate for Johnstone Town Council in the temperance interest, and was successful in ousting a licensed opponent from the representation of the ward in which his works are situated. It may be accepted as a proof of the Provost's personal popularity that his opponent was successful in the following year in obtaining a seat on the Town Council. Though continually devoted to his business, Provost Lang has been able to render good service in Johnstone municipal affairs. As convener of the Gas Committee he has taken an active part in the extension of the gas works of the town, and as a member of the Health Committee he is instant in season and out of season in advocating sanitary reform.
Provost Lang, in fact, is a man with a municipal ideal. He believes that every municipality, so far as practicable, should possess a public slaughter-house, public baths, and a public park, in addition to supplying gas and water to the community. Such an ideal is of more than local interest, for there are as yet many towns in Scotland where a beginning has not been made in these desirable directions. Lithe and active, pleasant in manner, and of cultured speech, absolutely free from affectation, the youthful-looking Provost of Johnstone may well be Popular with his fellow-townsmen. It is as the head of an industrial firm, however, that he figures here. Along with his brothers, Robert, James, and William, who are partners with him in the business, Provost Lang seeks to pursue an enlightened industrial policy which secures the welfare of the worker, in the expectation that benefit to the employer will follow.
The works of Messrs. John Lang & Sons extend over a wide stretch of ground on both sides of Mary Street, and employ 35o workmen all the year round, with the near prospect of adding more when the new foundry is in full working-order. Entering by Mary Street, the visitor passes through the two-storied front building, which accommodates all the firm's officials, from the timekeeper to the head partners, with their working quarters. A narrow courtyard is crossed, and then the main building, covering a floorage of nearly two acres, is entered. Near the door is the tool store, where all the gauges and smaller implements are kept in pigeon holes. Opposite the pigeon holes is a board covered with numbered brass discs, and when a workman takes away a tool he must put his numbered ticket into the hole, so that it can be known in a moment where a particular tool may be.
The most striking feature of the main shop is the complete absence of partitions and divisions; all the various departments are working in full sight of each other. On the one side are the lighter machine tools, in the centre the gigantic planers, on the other side the milling machines and turning lathes. Perhaps the most remarkable and certainly the prettiest of those machine tools are the machines for cutting teeth in wheels. Teeth can be cut in wheels up to 6 ft. in diameter. The plain cast wheel is fixed on the mandril, a milling cutter slowly comes in contact with the wheel, and then the star points rapidly revolve, biting into the hard metal with incredible ease; when the indentation is deep enough the revolving star suddenly recoils, and the wheel being cut is turned round a point, and the cutter returns to its biting work. Toothed or pinion wheels are usually cast, but this cutting process produces wheels absolutely exact and beautifully smooth in working. Another feature of these machines is that they can cut wheels to any shape for every sort of gearing.
The Messrs. Lang have also recently started a new machine for cutting the teeth in worm wheels without a hub, so that when only a few wheels are required good work can be done for very much less expense. The other tools in this wide shop differ in little from those used in engineering generally, though the milling tools and the drills are specially fine. On the other side of Mary Street is the new machine shop, show-rooms. . . . . .
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Obituary 1906 
Mr John Lang, founder of the well-known machine tool making firm of John Lang and Sons, Johnstone, N.B., died at Lilybank, aged eighty-one years, on the 16th inst.
Founded only some thirty years ago, the business of John Lang and Sons, the speciality of which has for many years been lathes, has had a phenomenal success, and the workshops of the firm have been continuously enlarged, and exemplified in their equipment, no less than in their staple productions, the skill and enterprise of the Lang family.
Mr. Lang was a man of sterling uprightness and unassuming manners. His eldest son is at the present time Provost of Johnstone.
Sources of Information
- The Engineer 20th April 1906