John Fritz was born six years before a steam locomotive made its first run in the United States. By the time of his death, the country was among the leaders of the industrial world and Fritz’s pioneering work in the iron and steel industry helped to make it possible. Educated in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania, Fritz learned his engineering through an apprenticeship with a blacksmith and in the iron industry that the early Industrial Revolution brought to Pennsylvania. By the end of the 1850’s, he was superintendent of the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown, Penn., where he invented a method of manufacturing iron rails for railroads.
Fritz came to Bethlehem in 1860 as chief superintendent of Bethlehem Iron Company, founded to produce rails for Asa Packer’s company into the nation’s premier supplier of rails, then took it into steelmaking and into the fabrication of specialized steel forgings and armor plate, giving rise to the modern American defense industry. An original trustee of Lehigh, he served on the board until 1897 and returned to the board in 1907 and remained until his death. The shops of the company were always opened to Lehigh students and “Uncle John,” as he was known, often was available to answer questions.
In 1909, he told Lehigh president Henry Drinker, “You need an up-to-date engineering lab and I intend to build one for you.” At the age of 87 he designed, supervised the construction and selected the equipment for Fritz laboratory, now a National Historic Engineering Landmark, and left funds for its upkeep in his will.