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Company's history began with the right chemistry

June 15, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

The origins of Action Products go back to the time of the Great Depression, when company founder Wilbur "Dr. Mac" McElroy was going to Chambersburg (Pa.) High School and taking a chemistry class.

"I had a great teacher there. He got me interested," said McElroy, who graduated in 1932. He went on to Gettysburg (Pa.) College, Johns Hopkins, Penn State and, eventually, Purdue University, all to study chemistry.

An organic chemist, he worked for several companies and helped develop products ranging from a device to analyze gun powder to a coating for printed circuit boards that were used in the first U.S. computers in space.

In 1969, when he was 55, McElroy decided to start his own company. At the suggestion of a friend in the medical supply business, he set up a shop in the basement of his two-story home in Olean, N.Y., to try to figure out a better form of padding for wheelchair patients.

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After a "good many" experiments, McElroy invented Akton - a soft gel-like synthetic substance.

In 1970, McElroy heard that the Veterans Administration was launching a study to find the best pad for wheelchairs. Akton won, and with that came a contract to supply pads to veterans hospitals across the nation.

The manufacturing began in New York, but "I didn't like (former New York Gov. Nelson) Rockefeller's handling of New York state, and I put ads in newspapers down through the Carolinas to look for properties that were for sale," McElroy said.

"One winter day," he recalled, he saw a for-sale ad for the three-story former shoe manufacturing plant on Mulberry Street in Hagerstown's East End that became Action Products' headquarters in 1979.

There, the company kept its entire operation until 1997, when it built a 30,000-square-foot plant on its 10-acre site at the end of Sweeney Drive in Hagerstown Business Park. Two years ago, when it added 12,000 square feet there, the company moved out of the Mulberry Street building entirely. Its production areas and offices now are concentrated in the Sweeney Drive building.

Akton is key to the company's success.

As you might expect, its formula is a secret.

"Not many" know it, McElroy said. It isn't patented because he never has wanted to disclose publicly what's in it.

"It's been a trade secret all these years," he said.

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