Minnesotans are proud of their heritage, including the “firsts” we’re known for, such as Scotch tape, water skis, Spam and the pacemaker. While other states are equally proud of their firsts—New York for the credit card; Michigan, the artificial heart; Texas, the integrated circuit—few other states, if any, have created as many firsts with as wide-ranging effect as has Minnesota. We officially rank between second (so says the Harvard Business Review) and ninth (Forbes and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) among “most innovative states.” Such distinctions tend to look only at volume and not overall significance, however. With this in mind, TCB editors combed through more than 100 inventions and “firsts” to present in the following pages 50 Minnesota firsts that have had the greatest impact on society.
Great Northern Railroad
James J. Hill turned St. Paul into the Upper Midwest’s rail hub by building the northernmost transcontinental railroad route in the United States, from Minnesota to Puget Sound. What’s more, it was the only completed transcontinental that was financed completely from private funds, thanks largely to the land it acquired in North Dakota and Montana—land it sold mostly to immigrant farmers. Hill’s Great Northern survives as part of BNSF, one of the seven remaining Class I railroads still operating in the U.S.
Swiss-born Albert Butz invented a “damper flapper” that allowed a coal-fired furnace to be regulated via the world’s first furnace thermostat. The St. Paul business he founded to manufacture the product, the Butz Thermo-electric Regulator Co., would evolve into today’s Honeywell International. Honeywell became one of Minnesota’s most legendary and innovative companies, thanks to the high-design round thermostats it began to market in 1952. Honeywell still makes round thermostats and numerous other products, but it’s based in New Jersey these days.
Concrete Grain Elevator
Train storage structures built of wood had an unfortunate habit of burning down, so grain trader Frank Peavey drove the development of something a little less flammable. Working with Charles Haglin, a Minneapolis contractor who also built Minneapolis City Hall and the Grain Exchange Building (among many other structures), Peavey built the first concrete grain elevator. It’s still standing near the interchange of Highways 7 and 100 in St. Louis Park, though it hasn’t held grain for more than a century. It now advertises the location of cooking utensil product manufacturer Nordic Ware.
Grocery Bag With Handles
Walter Deubener owned St. Paul’s first cash-and-carry grocery store (until then, all grocers delivered). To make it easier for his customers to tote their own purchases, he created a bag with a loop of string supporting the bottom that formed convenient handles at the top. It was such a notable innovation that the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce still names its annual business awards after Deubener. Given how long Deubener’s invention has been around, it’s surprising that there still are supermarkets that make you clutch your groceries in your arms.
Better Business Bureau
The BBB grew out of the “vigilance committees” established regionally by the advertising industry to ensure that advertisements’ claims were true. The Minneapolis Advertising Club’s vigilance committee was the first to call itself the Better Business Bureau, and it established the mode of operation followed by the 110-plus BBBs now established in the U.S. and Canada. Businesses that affiliate with their local BBB are required to follow standards for honesty and fair dealing. In the past few years, alas, various BBBs have been accused of protecting or punishing certain member companies, and several chapters have been disaffiliated.
Greyhound Bus Lines
Carl Wickman and Andrew Anderson open the first bus line in order to transport iron miners between Hibbing and Alice (a nearby town that Hibbing later annexed). That became the start of America’s largest cross-country bus company. Greyhound hasn’t stopped in Hibbing, or anywhere else on the Iron Range, however, since 1973.
The first electric toaster was invented in Scotland in 1893, but it took Stillwater mechanic Charles Strite to make that breakthrough a little more convenient. Though Strite patented the idea, other companies actually built the device, with the first—Minneapolis-based Waters Genter’s 1-A-1 Toastmaster—reaching the market in 1925. The Toastmaster brand is still around, attached not only to toasters but also to coffeemakers and a variety of commercial food preparation equipment.
On a summer day on Lake Pepin, 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson affixed two 8-foot-long pine boards to his feet, then grabbed hold of a rope connected to a powerboat. Over time, as he mastered his invention, Samuelson also ski-jumped (on a greased platform) and speed-skied (going 80 miles per hour behind a flying boat). Samuelson’s renown was not enough to prevent another person from patenting water skis, but history has confirmed him as the father of the invention. Despite the daredevilry of his youth, Samuelson ended his days quietly, as a turkey farmer in Pine Island.
Milky Way Candy Bar
Frank C. Mars, a native of Hancock, Minn., founded the Mar-O-Bar candy company in Minneapolis in 1920. Three years later, Mars introduced Milky Way, reputedly the world’s first “filled” candy bar. Its filling was inspired by the name of a chocolate-malt milkshake popular at the time. Milky Way was a hit, and six years after its introduction, Mars moved his company to the Midwest candy capital, Chicago. There the company would create other famous brands, notably 3 Musketeers and M&Ms.
The company originally known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing moved away from mining (and the North Shore), and has been developing new products ever since. One of 3M’s earliest innovations, masking tape, was originally created for use by auto painters for two-tone paint jobs. The tape’s inventor, Richard Drew, would go on to develop the first transparent cellophane adhesive tape, which 3M branded as Scotch tape.
Closed-Cabin Commercial Airplane
Northwest Airways was the first U.S. airline to offer a closed-cabin aircraft, a three-passenger Stinson Detroiter. Northwest, which was founded that same year, had its headquarters in Detroit at the time. But it flew only between the Twin Cities and Chicago at first, primarily as an air-mail carrier. In 1929, a group of Twin Cities businesspeople acquired Northwest and moved its headquarters to Minnesota, operating out of St. Paul’s Holman Field. Delta Air Lines acquired Northwest in 2008.
Leave it to a couple of Minnesota inventors to develop a cooling technology. Joseph Numero, a manufacturer of sound equipment for movie theaters, and Frederick Jones, an inventor who worked for Numero, designed a mechanical refrigeration unit to replace the ice blocks that trucking companies used to cool their trailers. Numero sold his sound-equipment business and together with Jones, founded the company now known as Thermo King. (During World War II, Jones would design portable cooling units for the military to keep food and medicine from spoiling.) Thermo King was acquired by Ingersoll Rand in 1997, but its headquarters remains in Minnesota.
Mass Spectrometer For Uranium-235
Minnesota-born Alfred Nier was one of the state’s most remarkable scientists, but his achievements aren’t well-known here, perhaps because he was a physicist rather than a physician or otherwise involved in medicine. But Nier’s work in mass spectrography at the University of Minnesota was crucial in the development of a pure sample of uranium-235, the isotope that would be a key component of the atomic bomb. Among the other milestones in Nier’s career was the development of small mass spectrometers used on the Viking Mars landers in the 1970s to identify elements in the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
Like many innovative U.S. companies, Honeywell was involved in defense work during World War II. What was then Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Co. developed an electronic autopilot for U.S. Air Force bombers, helping pilots fly steadily enough to hit targets from high altitudes. In time, aerospace would become one of Honeywell’s largest businesses.
Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)
Minnesota’s reputation as health care innovator isn’t restricted to physical health. Developed under the auspices of the University of Minnesota, the MMPI is the world’s most widely used standardized personality and psychology test. It’s used to not only to help psychologists make diagnoses, but also to aid employers in screening job candidates. Using a set of 567 true/false questions (there’s also a shorter, streamlined version), the test is “graded” using numerous scales to assess anxiety levels, propensity for addiction, tendency toward extroversion or introversion, and many other psychological characteristics. The MMPI has its critics, but it’s still considered the gold standard of personality assessments.
Magnetic Recording Tape
Magnetic recording had been around for years; 3M made it useful. Until then, magnetic recording used unwieldy and limited media such as wire and steel tape. 3M developed a strong but flexible plastic tape material as a recording medium. Singer Bing Crosby used 3M tape to record his radio show in 1948, and the invention became the basis of the commercial and consumer tape-recording businesses. In 1996, 3M’s tape business became part of spinoff company Imation, which still produces magnetic tape.
The founders of Mound Metalcraft Co. originally manufactured steel garden implements. Then a toymaker operating in the same building gave them his patents, and the toy steam shovels and cranes that started as a sideline for Mound Metalcraft quickly became its business. Bigger and more rugged than other toy vehicles, Tonka trucks were postwar playtime classics. The company would disappear in 1991 after some diversification failures, but the brand lives on — though in plastic, not steel.
Packaged Cake Mix
General Mills didn’t invent the packaged cake mix—such products had been around since the 1920s. But until the Minneapolis company mastered the food chemistry, cake mixes were readily subject to spoilage. When General Mills introduced Betty Crocker ginger cake mix in 1947, just-add-water products became much more shelf-stable—and widely accepted among harried parents of baby boomers.
Now a common anti-inflammatory used to treat maladies ranging from eczema to chronic joint pain, cortisone is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in times of stress. Mayo Clinic researchers Edward Kendall, Philip Hench and Harold Mason identified cortisone and discovered its ability to suppress the immune system. Merck & Co. would introduce the first commercially produced cortisone in 1949. Cortisone may well have played a key role in subsequent U.S. history: If it hadn’t been for Kendall and Hench’s discovery, John F. Kennedy—who took cortisone both orally and via injection—might not have become president.
St. Louis Park-based Nordic Ware produced the perfect postwar cooking utensil, one that allows even indifferent bakers to whip up an elegant dessert with ease. It was a slow seller until the 1960s, when a Pillsbury Bake-Off contestant used the pan to create a winning recipe. Nordic Ware is now a widely diversified cookware company, but it continues to create new Bundt pan designs. And it still makes them in Minnesota.
Toro introduced the first walk-behind snow blower, much to the relief of corner-lot homeowners and their cardiologists. Numerous companies manufacture blowers these days; Toro’s current line ranges from a compact electric model to a massive heavy-duty model with a 342cc engine that can blast the white stuff up to 45 feet.
A professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s and ’60s who later became director of medical affairs at St. Jude Medical, C. Walton Lillehei is one of the world’s greatest heart physicians. One of his first great accomplishments: the first successful open-heart surgery, on a 5-year-old girl at the University of Minnesota, which Lillehei performed with colleague F. John Lewis.
Black-Box Flight Data Recorder
Though now firmly focused on food, General Mills made many intriguing excursions into other industries during the postwar decades. For many years, it had a mechanical division that developed a variety of devices. One was the “black box” to record flight data on airplanes—crucial for determining the causes of a crash. The man behind the device was collision researcher James “Crash” Ryan in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Engineering, who worked with General Mills to perfect the technology. It took years of lobbying to get airlines on board, but now no commercial airplane takes off without it.
Another first associated with pioneering open-heart surgeon Walt Lillehei: the helix reservoir bubble oxygenator, which Lillehei developed with colleague Richard A. Wall. The device kept oxygen pumped into the blood during heart surgery. Before that, the standard approach to oxygenating the patient’s blood was cross circulation, which linked the patient’s bloodstream to that of a healthy donor.
In-the-ear Hearing Aid
World War II Air Force hero Ken Dahlberg left hearing-aid manufacturer Telex in 1948 to start an electronics company manufacturing “pillow radios” for hotels and hospitals. Within a few years, Dahlberg was making hearing aids of his own, incorporating a new technology: transistors. In 1955, his company created an all-transistor model called the Magic-Ear, whose components were contained in a small “shell” that fit inside the ear. It was the first in-the-ear aid, and it made wearing a hearing aid much less of a burden. Dahlberg’s company is now called Miracle-Ear, and remains based in Minnesota, though it’s now owned by an Italian hearing-aid company, Amplifon.
The Minnesota Iron Range might have lost its major industry instead of remaining one of the world’s largest sources of iron if it weren’t for the work of Edward Davis. Knowing that there were limited quantities of “natural” ore in the ground, Davis worked for decades to perfect technologies that would allow mining companies to separate iron from taconite, a rock formation with less pure iron content, and turn that iron into pellets for use by steel-making blast furnaces. When the natural ore began to run out in the 1950s, taconite-pellet technology was ready to take over. In 1955, Reserve Mining in Silver Bay produced the first pellets. There’s still plenty of taconite on the Range, though demand for iron has slumped in the past year, thanks to a global glut of steel.
Climate-Controlled Shopping Center
The Dayton department store company and Austrian-born designer Victor Gruen (a socialist in his younger days) changed the retail game forever when Southdale opened in Edina. Gruen had originally envisioned something more like a mixed-use downtown, and came to loathe the malls that Southdale pioneered and have since spread worldwide. It’s probably no coincidence that one of the world’s largest enclosed centers is just a few miles away from the original.
Edgar Hetteen didn’t invent the snowmobile. But the northern Minnesota native saw that snowmobiles had serious potential for recreational purposes, and he built the first such machine at his Roseau farm-implement company, Polaris Industries. The machine took off, and Hetteen would take off from Polaris in 1960 to start another snowmobile maker in Thief River Falls, a company that would come to be known as Arctic Cat. Polaris and Arctic Cat remain major Minnesota manufacturers, and both still make snowmobiles, although the product that has driven their growth in recent years is the all-terrain vehicle.
Working in his garage, electrical engineer Earl Bakken developed a battery-powered heart pacemaker that can be worn inside the body. Previously, pacemakers were large machines that had to be carted next to the patient. With his device, Bakken launched Medtronic, now a global med-tech giant. And yes, groundbreaking heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei was associated with this breakthrough as well: He asked Bakken to create such a device after one of his heart patients died.
Continuing its forays far from flour and Cheerios, General Mills had an on-staff aeronautical engineer design ALVIN, a deep-sea submersible that could be transported aboard a ship instead of being towed. Used by the U.S. Naval Institute, the three-passenger sub has performed a number of remarkable tasks, from locating a lost hydrogen bomb in 1966 to exploring the wreck of the Titanic two decades later. General Mills sold its mechanical division decades ago, but ALVIN (which has been upgraded several times) remains in use.
The bane of street-loving urbanists and the boon of winter-weary downtown workers, skyways first appeared in Minneapolis across Marquette Avenue, connecting the Northstar Center and the Northwestern National Bank building, where Wells Fargo Center now stands. The idea is credited to real estate developer Leslie Park, who worried that the city’s central business district needed to stay attractive to businesses and their employees. (General Mills decamped from downtown to Golden Valley in 1955.) Minneapolis now has about eight miles of skyways. St. Paul has more than five miles, and it can claim an even older skyway, built in the 1940s between the two towers of the First National Bank building, more than a dozen floors up.
Retractable Seat Belt
Score another safety first for Minnesota engineer James “Crash” Ryan. In addition to the black-box flight-data recorder, Ryan developed seat belts that self-tighten during a collision. As with the black box, the retractable belt wasn’t instantly embraced—but like the black box, the retractable seat belt is now standard equipment.
The first computer to receive the designation was the CDC 6600, developed by Control Data Corp. Among its other applications, it was used to model complex phenomena such as hurricanes and galaxies. It was considered the world’s fastest computer until 1969, when its successor, the CDC 7600, sped past it. One of the lead developers on the project, Seymour Cray, would leave Control Data to start his own supercomputer firm, which put Minnesota more firmly on the mainframe map. Though Control Data has disappeared and Cray Inc. has its headquarters in Seattle (with a sizable office in St. Paul), IBM’s Rochester facility continues to work on supercomputers, such as the new Mira.
Charlie Foley and Neil Rabens worked for a St. Paul company called Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design when they created a game called Pretzel. (Some sources identify Reyn Guyer, son of agency founder Reynolds Guyer, as the originator of the idea, which Foley and Rabens then developed.) The agency sold the idea to Milton Bradley, which renamed the game Twister. Sears Roebuck, then a dominant retailer, at first refused to carry it, considering it too risqué, but the company changed its mind when Johnny Carson played it on TV in 1966. Twister has never gone out of production, and has enjoyed revivals over the years.
Prosthetic Heart Valve
Heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei was once again involved with this innovation, the Lillehei-Nakib toroidal disc. Though plastic artificial heart valves had been used since the early 1950s, this new design would make artificial valves more durable and would inspire more innovations to come—and become the basis for significant business units at Medtronic and St. Jude Medical.
Walt Lillehei’s open-heart procedure is far from the only surgical first in Minnesota. The first successful pancreas, kidney and bone marrow transplants were performed at the University of Minnesota.
The other hot toy associated with St. Paul designer Reyn Guyer, the foam rubber Nerf, made it much easier for kids to play ball-related games inside. Parker Brothers bought the idea and ran with it, developing the Nerf football in the early 1970s. With the demise of Parker Brothers, Nerf has become the property of Hasbro, which has made Guyer’s original soft-toy concept the center of an arsenal of toys that blast foam darts and arrows.
Chaska engineer and designer Edward Pauls was an avid cross-country skier who wanted to re-create the exercise benefits of his favorite athletic endeavor indoors. Pauls sold the business to a company called CML, which flourished until the mid-1990s, when newer types of exercise equipment overtook skier machines in popularity. A Utah company, ICON Health & Fitness, reclaimed the product and the brand, which now is also affixed to elliptical machines, treadmills and other fitness equipment.
Crisp-Crust Frozen Pizza
As well as operating a small restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis, Rose Totino and her husband, Jim, ran a frozen-pizza business, which they sold to Pillsbury in 1975. Rose Totino joined Pillsbury as a vice president and kept working to improve her recipe. The crust had always been frozen pizza’s drawback, so Totino and Pillsbury food scientists developed a “delamination-resistant fried dough product,” as the patent termed it. Thanks to Totino, frozen pizza doesn’t have to have the taste and mouth-feel of tomato-covered cardboard.
Scott Olson didn’t invent the inline roller skate, but the 19-year-old made them faster and more comfortable for his fellow hockey players to wear to stay in skating shape during the summer. Pucksters took to them—and so did fitness-obsessed people who had never put a puck in the basket in their lives. Although you can still find them at roller rinks, regular roller skates have all but disappeared from the market—inline skates blew past them.
Satellite TV Broadcasting
Stanley S. Hubbard took a huge gamble starting U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB)—a risk that included his family broadcasting company launching its own digital satellite, the first ever for TV broadcasts. After 13 years in development, the satellite could transmit dozens of channels to an 18-inch satellite dish. USSB went public in 1996 (with Hubbard Broadcasting retaining 57 percent ownership) and was sold to DirecTV in 1998. Hubbard’s pioneering success in satellite-transmitted television cemented his reputation as one of the broadcasting industry’s greatest innovators.
Golden Valley Microwave Foods’ Act II brand was the first shelf-stable popcorn you can make in the family nuke—just in time for the home VCR boom. Blockbuster Video and countless other video stores are gone, but Act II remains America’s third best-selling microwave popcorn.
Sleep Number Bed
Select Comfort’s pressure-adjustable air-supported mattress was the brainchild of Robert Walker, who saw the promise of similar technology at a South Carolina company called Comfortaire (which is now owned by Select Comfort). Sales of the Sleep Number bed, which allows the sleeper to easily adjust the level of air support, are small relative to traditional spring mattresses, but with 400-plus Select Comfort stores, the brand’s own number is rising. As for Walker, he should have rested on his laurels. In 2014, he was convicted of cheating investors in a new venture, a coal-to-gas energy company.
Breathe Right Nasal Strip
Whether or not nasal strips really help people breathe easier or snore less, there’s no doubt that it didn’t hurt when pro football players started racking up some big games wearing those little strips on the bridges of their noses. Bruce Johnson, a self-taught engineer who suffered from severe nasal congestion, found that two pieces of plastic affixed with an adhesive pad kept his nostrils open at night, and licensed the idea to CNS, the Minnesota medical equipment company that made the strips. GlaxoSmithKline seems to think they work: In 2006, the Big Pharma firm plunked down $566 million for CNS, and the pros and others are still sporting them.
These loose, comfy, stripey pants were huge with pro wrestlers, weightlifters, rockers and ballplayers of all kinds. During the first half of the 1990s, Zubaz were a hit with men. (Not so much with women—for many wives and girlfriends, Zubaz equaled sloppy and lazy.) In the mid-1990s, founders Bob Truax and Dan Stock sold their share of the company, which went bankrupt shortly thereafter. In 2007, Truax and Stock relaunched the brand via the Internet, and Zubaz have made something a comeback. Last season, after the Detroit Tigers beat the Boston Red Sox, members of the victorious team posed in full-body Zubaz with a tiger-stripe design. And just when women everywhere thought their worries were over.
Microwaveable French Fries
You could call this Act II’s next act. Golden Valley Microwave Foods, which had introduced Act II microwave popcorn almost a decade earlier, decided it was time for a microwave version of another All-American snack food. The Minnesota company that developed these delicacies has since been acquired by Omaha food-brand giant ConAgra.
University of Minnesota medical chemist Robert Vince’s research with a group of antiviral agents called carbovirs led to his discovery of a breakthrough anti-AIDS medication called Abacavir, marketed by Glaxo-SmithKline as Ziagen. The drug has generated more than $300 million for the university, the most lucrative source of licensing income in the school’s history.
Originally branded as QuickMedx, MinuteClinic offers a fast-in, fast-out approach to treating a handful of common ailments such as sore throats. Once health insurers approved the idea, MinuteClinic added new maladies to its treatment capabilities, and the concept spread like, well, a virus. In 2006, pharmacy chain CVS acquired the company; there now are nearly 900 MinuteClinic locations nationwide—as well as a number of copies (Target Clinic, for example).
Fast Anthrax Test
Founded in the late 1800s, Mayo Clinic is one of the chief reasons that health care is one of Minnesota’s keystone industries. In the wake of 9/11, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two U.S. senators, killing five and prompting a nationwide scare. Working with pharmaceutical firm Roche, Mayo researchers developed a test to detect anthrax bacteria in human and environmental samples in less than an hour. The fears subsided, but the test remains on call.
ReconRobotics was founded to commercialize University of Minnesota robotics technology. In 2007, it introduced the Recon Scout, a small, remote-controlled robot that allows military and law-enforcement personnel to “see” into dangerous situations without putting themselves in harm’s way. ReconRobotics has since developed other “throwable” mini-bots for the military, and is now throwing the idea into other markets.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.