Josh Welton’s trip to Miller Electric earlier this year included an unexpected but welcomed cameo: a prototype of the landmark Millermatic 35 MIG welding machine. Earlier this year, Miller Electric invited brand partners Welton (left), Michael Brandt (second from left), and David Ankin (right) to Appleton, Wis., to speak at its national sales conference.
The history of tools is forever fascinating to me. They are always created out of either necessity or the desire to get a job done with less effort, less time, more safely, and with higher quality than previous tools and methods. And because this pursuit of making the “perfect tool” is ongoing, we often push forward with the latest and greatest with little thought from where they came. Positioner Turntable Welding
These days, MIG welding machines are everywhere. Nearly every garage has a basic, small short-arc or flux-core machine capable of handling tasks from fixing whirligigs to building an ATV trailer. Not only that, but more advanced MIG welding machines now are accessible for small shops wanting to increase output with processes like spray transfer and pulse. It can be easy to forget that you weren’t always able to roll up to a hardware store to grab a ready-to-weld machine.
Earlier this year, Miller Electric invited brand partners Michael Brandt, David Ankin, and me to Appleton, Wis., to speak at its national sales conference. It was a fun trip and the session with the sales staff was a good time, but every time I visit Miller HQ, the factory tour is like peanut butter on a spoon for a factory rat like myself.
After visiting the commercial solutions division where the Millermatics are built, we entered the front lobby where shiny newer machines like the Millermatic 255 and 252 and Multimatic 220 sit on display. But a humble, patinated stack of two boxes on a cart caught everyone’s attention.
Just over a half-century ago, a small team of engineers at Miller Electric turned out a machine that not only changed how body shops at the time repaired sheet metal but also shaped how we think of small-shop MIG welders from then until now. At the time, all MIG welding machines were a combo of separate parts, with the wire feed, power source, and gas flow all stand-alone aspects that needed to be connected and synced by the user. That all changed in the early ‘70s.
“In 1971, Miller introduced the first power source with a built-in wire feeder, the Millermatic 35. Rated at 150 amps, the Millermatic 35 was the ideal rig for sheet metal shops, garages, auto body and fender repair, maintenance welding, ornamental metal work, and steel sculpture.”
Now, we can still find these MM35s floating around in garages and shops across the U.S., but more often than not they’re considered outdated relics, a nod to a game-changing moment in welding technology history. So, what was unique about this cobweb-covered setup in the lobby?
Lloyd Gaurke was the engineering lead for Miller on the original Millermatic 35. He still lives in Appleton and still welds. A week before our factory tour, he called his Miller contacts to ask if they’d like to have his personal Millermatic 35 on display. Still operational, Lloyd had been throwing sparks with it until Miller gladly took possession of the machine for its archives. Having a ‘71 MM35 that still runs, owned by the dude who developed it, is rad enough. However, this thing does not look like a production MM35.
Two boxes make up the machine: one small toolbox type of container fastened to a larger, vented, rectangular housing. Worn, red Dymo labels with embossed white numbers and letters cling to the lower box’s face, there to direct a lever where to go depending on how thick the steel you’re welding is. There’s also a large switch that I assume is of the on/off variety. At the bottom are red and black positive/negative lugs. Protruding out of the smaller top box is a knob to adjust the wire speed and the lead for the gun, which connects with a generic rubber hose and metal hose clamps. A small-diameter gas line fitting runs through the front of the box, around the outside of the main lead, and into the gun. The wires to the gun’s trigger trace a similar path. There’s a third line that I’m not sure about, but it might hold a wire to control the gas on/off switch. The gun has two buttons to start the gas flow and trigger the wire feed. A couple of random holes in the box betray that this setup has experienced modification once or twice.
Inside the top box are a spindle for a wire spool that lays flat instead of vertical like we’re accustomed to, an old-school wire feed, fuse, and gas solenoid.
So what makes this unusual machine so special? It is one of three prototypes Lloyd Gaurke and his team at Miller built during the development of the world’s first MIG welder with a built-in wire feed. It is the super rare preproduction version of what would become the archetypical all-in-one MIG welding machine. The MM35 would become an affordable, easy-to-use, self-contained unit that revolutionized how we would use MIG welding machines then and now. It was a 150-amp machine that launched the now ubiquitous Millermatic line. And here I was taking it in—the history, the ingenuity, the face that launched a million Millermatics. And also, a machine that’s been put to practical use for over 50 years, evidenced by the spatter-covered consumables. Just another tool in another garage.
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