The utility construction industry lost a giant with the Dec. 11 death of Ed Malzahn, chairman of the Charles Machine Works Inc. (CMW). Malzahn’s invention of a compact trenching machine paved the way for changes in the way essential utility services are delivered to customers.
Malzahn, 94, died in Perry, OK, the small northern Oklahoma town that was Malzahn’s lifelong home and where CMW is headquartered. A memorial service was held Dec. 18 at the Ditch Witch training center on The Charles Machine Works campus with funeral services on Dec. 19 at the First Presbyterian Church of Perry, Malzahn’s long-time family church.
In 1948, Malzahn designed the world’s first compact trenching machine, a product he envisioned could be used to dig water and gas service lines to houses which at that time was done by hand. Malzahn, a recent engineering graduate of Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University), devoted two years working in his father’s Perry machine shop to perfect the new product.
The first model had small buckets mounted on a vertical chain which cut into the ground as the chain rotated, digging a narrow trench. The machine’s steel frame had four small wheels with pneumatic tires. The operator sat on a side-mounted tractor seat and moved the machine forward or backward with a lever-controlled ratchet. In 1950, Malzahn was satisfied the new product was ready to sell.
“I hired an advertising man in Tulsa to print a sales sheet,” Malzahn said. “He asked what the name of the product was, and I said it didn’t have a name – it was being called ‘Ed’s Ditcher’. That didn’t seem suitable, and we tossed around ideas for names, but nothing seemed right. The ad man said, ‘Well, what does it do?’ I said, ‘It digs ditch.’ We began looking for words to put with ‘ditch’. It was getting late in the day, and ‘witch’ rhymed, so that was it, Ditch Witch was the name.”
In 1951, Malzahn placed the first Ditch Witch ad in Popular Mechanics magazine; it was one column wide, two inches deep. Trenchers began to sell, and Charlie’s Machine Shop was expanded several times to increase production to meet growing demand. The Charles Machine Works (CMW) was incorporated,160 acres west of Perry was acquired and a new 24,000-square-foot manufacturing plant and 8,000-square-foot office were built there.
That first compact trenching machine set the stage for development of equipment which would install not only water and sewer pipe, but also telephone, electrical cable and later CATV cables underground, out of sight and safe from weather outages. By the 1970s, new subdivisions were advertising all underground utilities – no unsightly wires, no service lines to fall or fail due to weather or accidents.
“In addition to equipment,” he once explained, “before electric and telephone cable could be placed in the ground, wire products had to be improved. In fact, early power cable carried warnings not to bury it in the ground. A lot of things had to come together to get us where we are today.”
Malzahn guided his company from a country town machine show to a global corporation. With the steadily expanding Ditch Witch line of equipment and later the products of companies CMW acquired, the Perry company today claims it offers to the world’s broadest line of equipment for installing utilities under the ground.
(Article originally published in December 2015 of Underground Construction)
Photo: Lenny Sadler (left), and Ed Malzahn in front of a mural in the Wichita, KS, dealership