Minnesota's Inventive History

From medical, scientific and technological breakthroughs to food and pop culture, Minnesota has spawned some of the most innovative companies, ideas and products on the planet.  

Their inventions and discoveries have been elegantly simple, mind-bogglingly complex, practical, whimsical, life-saving, money-saving, time-saving, and just plain fun.

Here's a brief timeline of our long history of innovation.

Gizmos and Technological Wonders
Minnesota companies have not only made life easier with technology. In many cases they're revolutionized it.

  • 1885: Furnace thermostat. Inventor Albert Butz's heating control device was the birth of Honeywell.
  • 1888: The union suit. Not really a technological wonder. But when winter rolls around, thank heavens for this full-body set of long underwear.
  • 1925: Masking tape. 3M inventor Dick Drew developed the only slightly-sticky tape for use in auto body shops.
  • 1926: Closed-cabin aircraft. Northwest Airways debuted the nation's first closed-cabin commercial plane, a three-passenger craft.
  • 1940: Uranium separation. Physicist Alfred Nier helped develop the atomic bomb by separating uranium isotopes 235 and 238
  • 1942: Electronic autopilot. This Honeywell invention helped guide World War II bombers.
  • 1947: Magnetic recording tape. Developed by 3M, it became the industry standard.
  • 1952: Computer tape. Another 3M invention.
  • 1952: First scientific computer. Known as ERA 1103, and the Univac 1103, this computer was developed by St. Paul-based Engineering Research Associates.
  • 1953: Flight data recorder. More commonly known as the black box, this aviation innovation was a product of General Mills.
  • 1955: Taconite process. Edwin W. Davis' taconite pellet process allowed for the use of lower-grade iron ore and breathed new life into Minnesota's Iron Range.
  • 1960s: Ring laser gyroscope. Designed by Honeywell, this invention stabilizes and helps guide airplanes, rockets, submarines and spacecraft.
  • 1962: ALVIN. The world's first deep-sea submarine. Developed by General Mills' Mechanical Division, it explored the wreck of the Titanic.
  • 1963: Retractable seat belt. Engineer James Ryan developed this restraint that self-tightens during a crash.
  • 1964: Supercomputer. Developed by Control Data Corporation, this fast-thinking machine was used by the government to simulate nuclear explosions, break codes, and ponder many other complex problems.
  • 1970s: Tissue culture technology. Ronald L. Phillips and a research team at the University of Minnesota paved the way for genetic engineering of crops when they regenerated whole corn plants form a tissue sample.
  • 1976: CRAY-1 super computer. Designed by computer genius Seymour Cray.
  • 1980: Post-it Notes. 3M's Art Fry developed the sticky yellow pieces of paper we just can't live without.
  • 1987: Breathe Right nasal strip. St. Paul native Bruce Johnson, who, suffered from chronic nasal congestion, came up with the idea for these nose-openers in the middle of the night.
  • 1990: Gopher Internet portal. The first software for navigating the Internet was created at the University of Minnesota.
  • 1994: Polylactic acid polymer. Scientist Patrick Gruber figured out how to produce this biodegradable plastic polymer derived from corn. It's used to make all kinds of environmentally friendly plastic products that can break down.
  • 2007: Environmentally friendly thin-film batteries. Cymbet Corporation's Engineering Chip family of batteries is designed to eliminate battery replacement and last the life of the devices they power. The green battery keeps hazardous materials, flammable solvents and other harmful elements out of ground, air and water.

Medical Marvels and Breakthroughs
There's really no way to count all the lives that have been saved by the inventions and discoveries of Minnesota's world-class medical inventors and researchers.

  • 1931: Wangensteen suction tube. Created by Owen H. Wangensteen at the University of Minnesota. The device removes deadly gas and fluid buildup during abdominal surgery.
  • 1948: Cortisone. Nobel Prize-winning researchers Edward Dendall and Phillip Hench developed this anti-inflammatory wonder drug that is widely used today.
  • 1952: Open-heart surgery. Surgeons C. Walter Lillehei and F. John Lewis performed the first successful open-heart surgery on a 5-year-old girl.
  • 1955: Blood pump. Richard DeWall and C. Walter Lillehei made surgery safer with this device that puts oxygen into a patient's blood during open-heart surgery.
  • 1955: In-ear hearing aid. Minnesota firm Dahlberg, Inc., was the first firm to market the device.
  • 1957: Cardiac pacemaker. Working in his garage, electrical engineer Earl Bakken developed the implantable pacemaker and started the world renowned company today know as Medtronic.
  • 1960s: Mechanical heart valve. C. Walter Lillehei helped design two valves that are still in use today.
  • 1960s: Anesthesia monitor. Physicist Alfred Nier and others developed this operating room technology.
  • 1966-68: Organ transplants. The first pancreas transplant, and the first successful kidney and bone marrow transplants were done at the University of Minnesota.
  • 1996: Transgenic mouse. Hoping to give researchers a tool to help understand the development of Alzheimer's disease, neurologist Karen Hsaio Ashe bred a mouse genetically disposed to inherit the disease.
  • 1998: Ziagen. Chemist Robert Vance developed the compounds that led to this medication for treating HIV/AIDS.
  • 2001: Anthrax test. The Mayo Clinic developed this DNA test, which can detect anthrax in less than an hour.
  • 2004: Digital pacemaker. Medtronic introduces world's first digital pacemaker.
  • 2008: Whole organ decellularization. Dr. Doris A. Taylor and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota create a new, beating heart, an astonishing advance in the quest to grow new organs from a patient's own stem cells. Researchers removed all the cells from a dead rat heart, leaving the valves and outer structure as scaffolding for new heart cells injected from newborn rats. The cells formed a new beating heart that conducted electrical impulses and pumped a small amount of blood.

Food For Thought
Few things hold our attention like food. So here are some food-related firsts brought fresh to grocery stores, refrigerators, cupboards, and countertops all over the world by Minnesota companies.

  • 1912: Handled grocery bag. St. Paul grocer Walter Deubener came up with the idea.
  • 1919: Pop-up toaster. Stillwater mechanic Charles Strite invented the Toastmaster, a brand still produced today.
  • 1922: Haralson apple. Developed by F.B. Haralson at the University of Minnesota.
  • 1923: Milky Way candy bar. Candy maker Frank C. Mars invented the gooey treat in Minneapolis.
  • 1924: Wheaties. The breakfast of champions: was developed by the Washburn Crosby Co. of Minneapolis. Their cereal was originally known as Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. But because the name was too much of a mouthful, it was shortened to Wheaties.
  • 1925: The Green Giant. The well-known mascot of the Minnesota Valley Canning Company in Le Sueur made his first appearance.
  • 1931: Bisquick. The first premixed biscuit mix was produced by General Mills.
  • 1937: SPAM. The famous luncheon meat in a can was created by Jay C. Hormel, son of Austin-based Hormel founder George C. Hormel.
  • 1947: Packaged cake mix. Betty Crocker's Ginger Cake, the first product of its kind, was produced by General Mills.
  • 1979: Crisp-crust frozen pizza. Restaurateur Rose Totino patented frozen pizza dough.
  • 1991: Honeycrisp apple. Developed at the University of Minnesota, this hybrid is prized for its sweetness, firmness and tartness and may well be the most popular apple in the nation.
  • 2003: Let's Dish. Cofounders Ruth Lundquist and Darcy Olson came up with the novel idea fro quick, wholesome food preparation as a way to help busy families balance work and home life. Using provided recipes, ingredients, and equipment, customers can prepare a week's worth (or more) of complete meals in just a couple hours. Today, the company has franchises throughout the United States.

A Whole Lot of Fun Stuff
Over the years, Minnesota inventors and companies have given the world some really great games and diversions.

  • 1922: Water skis. The brainchild of a bored Ralph Samuelson, who fashioned skis out of two 8-foot pine boards.
  • 1947: Tonka trucks. Founded by a group of school teachers, the Mound Metalcraft Company (which later took the name Tonka) manufactured some of the nation's most popular toys.
  • 1948: Cootie. Was one of several games (Don't Spill the Beans, Ants I the Pants, and Don't Break the Ice) created by postman Herb Schaper.
  • 1962: Front-engine snowmobile. Ed Hetteen, found of Polaris and Arctic Enterprises, gave the Arctic Cat its snow claws.
  • 1964ish: Twister. The contortion-inducing party game originated in St. Paul at a company called Reynolds Guyer House of Design.
  • 1969: Nerf ball: The famous indoor-safe foam ball was invented by Reyn Guyer.
  • 1980: Rollerblades. Collegiate hockey player Scott Olson came up with the idea as a way to practice in the summer.
  • 1993: Magnetic poetry. Aspiring poet Dave Kapell invented the word magnets to help him write.