Robert C. “Bob” Harmon (1912-2008) grew up in Odessa, Missouri, graduated from Central Missouri State Teachers College in 1932 and completed his education at the University of Missouri in Business and Public Administration. On May 23, 1937 he married Mildred Irene Johnson, a teacher and native of Grain Valley, Missouri. Mildred grew up near Oakland School where she and her older sister, Grace (Johnson) Storms each taught for a brief time in the 1920’s and 30’s.
Bob learned about radio while serving in the Marine Corps in the 1930s. During World War II, he worked for a manufacturing company in Kansas City which provided two-way radios for the military. When the company failed to find a civilian market for their radios they were forced to close.
To provide work for himself and the many skilled individuals unemployed after the war, in September 1946 he started his own firm, Harmon Electronics. The company began in Independence with the goal of using radio and other electronics to inform railroad engineers about overheated axle bearings called hotboxes. If these were ineffective, the train wheels could lock up and cause trains to derail.
With a contract from Southern Railway to use the equipment, in 1958 Harmon Electronics moved from Independence to its first owned facilities, a building on farm land next to the Harmon Home on Argo Road. For the next twenty-years Harmon Electronics remained a custom engineering firm to help clients find technical solutions. The work was done by only two dozen employees.
Robert E. “Gene” Harmon graduated from Grain Valley High School in 1958. After obtaining an engineering degree from Georgia Tech in 1962, he returned to Grain Valley to assume a position in the company founded by his father.
His first contribution was an electronic switch that improved the timing on railroad crossing gates. Crossing gates would not open for cars until trains had gone 100 feet or more down the track, but Gene’s device opened the gates after just two feet of clearance. His father liked the idea, and by 1964 the company had a major product to sell.
Harmon Electronics remained a private company until 1972 when Gene Harmon took the company public. For the next fifteen years Harmon Electronics went through many acquisitions and innovations resulting in restructuring. In 1987 Harmon Industries, Inc., formed as a holding company.
Bob Harmon’s vision that begin in an upholstery shop in Independence, played a huge role in supplying the nation’s and eventually the world’s railroads with advanced systems for signaling, inspections, and train control and safety. By 1998, Harmon Industries was operated by a ten-member Board of Directors chaired by Bob Harmon, the only family member still involved in the firm.
The company was sold to GE Harris Railway Electronics and by 2000 it was known only as GE Transportation. Today, the plant at the corner of Argo and Dillingham Roads is known as Alstom Signaling Operations. It’s approximately 500 employees are still manufacturing railroad safety equipment and train and highway crossing signals.
Robert C. Harmon, 1932, second from left, is pictured prior to receiving an honorary degree, Doctor of Science, from Central Missouri State University President, Ed Elliott, second from right, at the 1996 Commencement Exercises. Flanking the two are Mrs. Mildred Harmon and their son, Robert E. Harmon. (Note: Dr. Elliott is a graduate of Grain Valley High School. He and Gene are current members of the Grain Valley Education Foundation Board.) Photo courtesy of the Grain Valley Historical Society