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Just what made Iron Mike so tough?

This accompanies a feature we published in the February 2008 edition of Pacific Fishing that discusses high tech in the wheelhouse. In this case, high tech from 75 years ago: the classic Iron Mike.

While automatic pilots are a big part of high tech help in the wheelhouse, they occasionally go by a low-tech name: Iron Mike.

Which brings up two questions: Who was Mike and what made him so tough?

Mike apparently came from St. Michael, who not only was a warrior angel but the patron saint of mariners. (Before you get too puffed up about having a tough-guy angel on your side, remember that Michael also is the patron saint of grocery store clerks.)

Mariners and fishermen adopted the biblical name for a new-fangled device that originally sported a great amount of cast iron.

The Iron Mike of the commercial fishing industry came into being during a disastrous fishing trip by a guy from Tacoma, according to Michael Freeman, who is president of MMP Inc. in Tacoma. MMP (Metal Marine Pilot) is the successor to a company begun by the venerable Wood Freeman.

Here his story:

Sperry Instruments had produced the first autopilot for sea vessels, but it was gyro-based and too expensive and ill-suited for fishing boats.

Enter Wood Freeman. In 1926, he was trolling for salmon off the Washington Coast when a boom broke loose and hit him in the face. He was unable to stand without fainting, so he laid on the galley table and for three days steered the vessel home with his feet while watching the boat’s compass in a mirror balanced on his chest.

Three days with a busted up face, laying on your back, steering with your feet gives a man a lot of time to think. One thought that passed through Freeman’s mind was this: There’s got to be a better way.

He was a former mining engineer and college professor, so he went to work, settling on a compass-based system. In 1934, he installed and operated his first production unit: the Metal Marine Pilot Model 1. Fittingly, the machine went to a commercial fishing vessel.

New models proliferated, as business grew and absorbed the skill and time of family members. In 1956, Wood Freeman and his children incorporated as Metal Marine Pilot Inc.

Wood died in 1956, passing management to son Bob, an engineer and former captain in the Navy. In 2000, Bob’s son Michael (coincidence?) incorporated a new business, MMP Inc., that absorbed the older business.

Over the years, the Freeman product line adopted emerging technologies while working from Tacoma.

In 2005 Michael had some potential health problems.  Not wanting the products to disappear and leave the thousands of customers still using the products with no replacement parts or ability to support the product, he sold the manufacturing rights to Presley’s Marine in Bay City, Texas. 

Presley's now manufactures new systems of  what was the Model 11, 15, and 420 mechanical pilots, along with replacement components for the mechanical units and motors which will retrofit to units from 1934 to current.