Skip to main Content

Miscovich parlayed mining camp innovation into firefighting advance

  • Author: Dermot Cole
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 30, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- At 5 feet 8 inches, John A. Miscovich was an unlikely giant in the Alaska placer mining industry.

He invented a water cannon known as the "Intelligiant," which influenced the development of hydraulic gold mining, as well as firefighting and about 150 other applications, from riot control to tank cleaning and excavation.

Miscovich, who died Aug. 22 at 96 in Orange, Calif., is on track to be a future member of the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in Fairbanks, joining his father, pioneer Alaska miner Peter Miscovich.

John Miscovich was born in 1918 in Flat, a settlement about 280 miles northwest of Anchorage that earned its greatest glory as a gold rush boom town and later as the flat place where Wiley Post crash-landed -- and survived -- in 1933 on a solo flight around the world. Miscovich grew up watching miners wash away tons of dirt with heavy nozzles known as "giants," machinery that had changed little since the 1870s.

An operator had to hold the handle attached to the nozzle to keep it steady, fighting the law of motion that dictates for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Let go for an instant and there will be enormous pushback.

"The high water pressure in the old giant would make it take off like a bucking bronco if the handle was ever let go," Miscovich once wrote, applying Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion to placer mining.

"As a young boy mining in Flat, I would stand at the handle for 10 hours a day in the rain and cold, holding on for dear life and fighting mosquitoes, thinking there had to be a better way," he said.

Enter the "Misco-giant," which he later called the "Intelligiant," a name that signified an intelligent giant, as in "it was so smart" that it could be controlled automatically, he said.

"I designed it for miners, but it was firefighters who wanted it the most," he once told an interviewer.

Before he could put his ideas into action, however, he found himself in the Aleutians, serving in the Army during World War II. After his discharge he sought a loan in Seattle to build his invention.

The idea was simple but revolutionary, incorporating a curved pipe and two ball-bearing swivel joints. The design neutralized the back pressure that could transform an unattended machine pumping thousands of gallons of water a minute into a gyrating beast. The technique developed by Miscovich helped keep the nozzle reaction to a minimum.

A mining industry publication ran an article on his invention, the first of many patents he earned, and mining companies began to pay attention.

Student of the ‘University of Flat’

Although a Seattle banker refused to loan him $5,000 to help with development, telling him "you need a psychiatrist and not a banker," Miscovich cashed in an insurance policy and traveled to Florida to visit a mining executive, towing his Intelligiant on a trailer.

While the machine cost several times as much as the old models, which Miscovich called "cast-iron clunk," the value of the innovation triumphed over the financial pressure.

Queried about his background over the years, Miscovich, who had dropped out of high school in Fairbanks, often said he attended the "University of Flat."

He leased his patents and later sold some of them to companies that continued the innovation process, including the Stang Hydronics Corp. in California.

"Breaking into the fire application was very difficult because all the manufacturers of fire equipment made their products out of brass, and the equipment was very heavy. I had switched over to stainless steel, which was a much lighter material and could withstand higher pressures," he said.

"The Intelligiant's unique two-bearing design could withstand much higher working pressure and helped develop a new era in fire equipment," he said.

Instead of 500 to 1,000 gallons a minute, the new device pumped up to 15,000 gallons a minute and found its way onto fireboats in New York City and San Francisco, as well as textbooks on firefighting equipment.

For 30 years he traveled the world as a consultant, sharing his expertise on applications for the Intelligiant. He said one of the greatest honors was a stamp printed in England that featured a fire ship shooting water from Intelligiants as an example of engineering achievements.

"It is gratifying to see this product grow from a muck-moving machine on a small creek in Alaska to worldwide use for the better of humanity and the protection of life and property," he wrote.

Throughout his life he kept going back to mine for gold at Flat, the ghost town where his father, an immigrant from Croatia, had started mining more than 100 years ago.

Peter and Stana Bagoy Miscovich had seven children. John was the third. In 2012, John made his last trip to Flat, a place populated mainly with empty buildings and memories.

Miscovich is survived by Mary, his wife of 57 years, sons Peter and John Jr., daughters Maria Obradovic and Sandra Stelmas, and grandchildren John, Sasha and Addison.

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.