In September 1940, the apprentice Josef Maier, by then nineteen, was conscripted into the Wehrmacht – Germany’s armed forces. He joined the flight training regiment at Memmingen air base. There, he was assigned as a driver, but he was already developing the idea of a swashplate engine. In fact, he was encouraged by Professor Ludwig Dürr of the Dornierwerke, an aircraft manufacturer. The engine was intended for large aircraft, such as the light bomber Do 17. Even during his deployment to the Soviet Union, he couldn’t let go of his engineering conundrum. He continued to work on the question of how to build an aircraft with pivoting engines that would be able to fly horizontally as well as vertically. Before the end of the war, Maier was recalled from the Soviet Union and stationed in Bayreuth. There, he now had official status as the inventor of a model essential to the war effort and was exempt from military service. In a Bayreuth cotton mill, Maier was finally able to build the prototype of his engine. He completed it in mid-January 1945. The five double pistons produced about 125 horsepower.
The end of the war put a stop to his efforts to obtain a patent for his model. Maier was on home leave in Bruckfelden when he was arrested by French occupation forces and sent to Besançon. The POWs accompanied a French regiment from Besançon that was heading home and helped to repair electricity pylon.
Once again, Josef's engineering skills proved an advantage. In France, he was soon allowed to work on a farm as a free prisoner and then moved on to a sawmill. A German fellow prisoner recruited him for the Rey plastics factory in St. Claude in the Jura Mountains.
When Josef Maier arrived in the Jura, his situation was not exactly favourable. This was a region where every family had lost relatives to the German Wehrmacht. He was German and didn’t speak a word of French. But he soon gained a reputation as an engineering genius.
Nevertheless, Maier hesitated to accept the offer from the plastics firm. His dream was to emigrate to the States. That was where he wanted to try his luck. But things turned out differently.
In the end, Josef Maier went to St. Claude and stayed – not as a prisoner of war, but before long, as an engineer with a decent salary.
During the post-war years, Rey manually produced spectacles and combs; the firm had 38 employees and enjoyed continuous growth. Josef Maier converted the plastic injection-moulding machines required for the manufacturing process from high pressure to low pressure. When new, larger factory buildings were erected, he acted as architect – having gained all the relevant knowledge from technical books.
But he still longed to emigrate to the US – and actually drew the attention of people from the States, who offered him a job at Boeing in Chicago.
Once again, things turned out differently. In 1952, he met Bernadette Coste and went on to marry her in 1956. He stayed in St. Claude. In 1955, the couple jointly founded the firm of Maier S.A. where he developed and manufactured special machinery for precision parts. The firm was based in the village of La Verne not far from St. Claude.
The business developed exceptionally well. Even other local business owners asked Maier for machines to optimise their production processes. One excellent example of a successful cooperation was his collaboration with Chevassus, a firm that produced spectacle hinges and metal bracelets. He developed manufacturing machinery such as multi-bar lathes and multi-tool plates.
The steady success of this collaboration proved immensely important to the region. Soon, the two firms Chevassus and Maier jointly had the world monopoly on spectacle hinges and metal watch straps and exported to more than 45 countries, including other European countries, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and the US.
In 1984, Josef Maier sold his firm to his business partner’s son, Pierre Chevassus.
All depictions: © Gemeinde Fricklingen