The Life of Harry A Kuljian

Harry A. Kuljian was an internationally known engineer whose life portrayed a classic American success story. He was born in Aintab, now in Turkey, and booked steerage accommodations on a ship to America at age 16. Arriving in the U.S. with little money and speaking no English, he worked for the next seven years to complete his education, mixing duties as a dishwasher, handyman, and elevator operator with his studies. He completed high school and in 1919 graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Over the next decade he worked as an engineer and in 1924 a job with American Viscose Corp. brought him to Philadelphia. In 1930 he founded the firm that became the Kuljian Corp. Although the firm branched out into overseas operations, its local projects include many major industrial plants, the airfield design at Philadelphia International Airport, and the South Broad Street Subway extension. Spurred by his own roots in an underdeveloped area of the world, Mr. Kuljian used every available occasion to urge his profession to become more involved in solving world problems. He made speeches, wrote books, and appeared before congressional committees.

His philosophy of using engineering to improve quality of life caused him to take particular pride in his firm’s involvement with a power plant project in India, one of the first major postwar projects in South Asia. He established scores of scholarships for students at home and abroad in hopes of furthering his ideals for engineering. An inventor, Mr. Kuljian received widespread publicity in the early 1950s for his development of a dramatically improved rayon production technique but new fibres and other economic factors lessened the impact of his invention. Mr. Kuljian was a member of the Philadelphia Board of Health from 1956 to 1964.

The Kuljian Corp. was housed at 1200 N. Broad Street in what had been the mansion of the Widener family. His firm altered it for business use while disturbing its decorations and original look as little as possible. Mr. Kuljian made numerous trips around the world to check on his firm’s scattered projects and offices. India was a particular foreign focus in which he opened an affiliate operation in 1949. The first assignment it won was a $28-million assignment to build the Durgapur steam power plant in West Bengal. Kuljian developed a renowned name in India and would bid and usually win on important jobs, including numerous hydroelectric and atomic plants. For example, Kuljian became well-known to Indian Prime Minister Nehru and they attended a dedication together of one of the Kuljian-built plants.

Kuljian married Alice Levonian when she was on a trip to visit America in the 1920s, they had known each other in Armenia and Kuljian persuaded her to stay. They had three children: a daughter Florence, and sons Arthur and Edward. Kuljian is remembered as an engineer and philanthropist who brought electric power to millions of people around the world.

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