Invention Factory

Since the early 1800s, Michigan has been a hotbed of inventions and innovations. For the first time, we offer an invention timeline that highlights 35 advancements that have served to save lives, drive business, and change the world.





A surveyor by trade, Judge William Austin Burt of Washington Township invented the typographer, a precursor to the typewriter. Burt’s machine was simple enough — a swinging lever set atop a wooden box would type impressions on a rolling scroll of paper set inside the device. Once the type was completed, the paper could be torn off. While the stylist offered upper- and lowercase letters, it was never commercially successful due to the manufacturing limitations of the pre-industrial era. Based in part on Burt’s contributions, a manual typewriter was introduced in 1868 by a trio of inventors from Milwaukee. A replica of Burt’s typographer, built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, is housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.




Pullman Railcar

While in Detroit, George Pullman unveiled the first railroad sleeper car and, not too long after, the dining car. Expensive to build — some eight times more than a passenger railcar — the Pullman sleeper gained national fame when it transported President Abraham Lincoln’s body from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill., in 1865. Soon after, the Pullman car was associated with success and luxury, although it was priced to draw emerging middle-class passengers. In turn, Pullman hired former slaves for hospitality positions, making the company one of the largest employers of African-Americans in the country. The food served on the Pullman cars befitted the company’s claim of offering a “hotel on wheels.”






Detroit’s first millionaire, Eber Brock Ward, and a group of investors started Eureka Iron and Steel Works in Wyandotte in 1853. More than a decade later, Ward, working from the Bessemer process developed in England, was the first to produce high-strength steel in large quantities. As a result, steel became cheaper to produce, both from a material and a labor standpoint. Initially, Ward manufactured the first Bessemer steel rails for trains before supplying the emerging heating stove industry. Detroit went on to become the largest producer of stoves in the world. Ward also opened the door for other steel producers, who together contributed mightily to the success of such early automobile manufacturers as Olds, Buick, Cadillac, and Ford.





Because placing meat on a mixture of ice and salt would affect its appearance and taste, Detroiter William Davis patented a refrigerated railcar, often called a reefer, where beef was placed on metal racks suspended above an icy mixture. The innovation was successful on shorter runs of 200 miles or less, but proved impractical on longer trips. One problem was that the floating racks of meat would sway when a train powered through a sharp curve, resulting in derailments. Soon after, Davis’ method of distributing beef was modified so that ice was set in a compartment at the top of a railcar, with the meat packed tightly on the floor to eliminate shifting. At the time, Detroit was one of the largest producers of wooden railcars.





Before Elijah McCoy patented the Automatic Lubricating Cup from his machine shop in Ypsilanti, extra railhands would accompany trains to lubricate the steam locomotives as needed. The process was repeated every 10 miles or so. With McCoy’s invention, trains could travel great distances, and with less labor aboard. Eager to take advantage of the innovation and avoid inferior copies, railroad engineers insisted their trains be outfitted with “The real McCoy” system. A holder of 57 patents, McCoy, who was black, was born free in Ontario and moved to Ypsilanti with his parents and 11 siblings in 1847. He went on to introduce a lawn sprinkler and folding ironing board.






The problem facing the lumber industry in the late 1800s was having year-round access to the many forests spread across Michigan and beyond; wet weather and winter were less than ideal for lumber operations. Enter Silas Overpack and his Big Wheel, which made it possible to move huge logs from forests year-round, rather than limiting this activity to warmer, more idyllic weather. A blacksmith and purveyor of hardware in Manistee, Overpack took his wagon-making skills and applied them to the problem of transporting logs. Setting large wheels, each 10 feet in diameter, on either side of a wooden axle, workmen would suspend newly cut timber underneath the axle via rope or chains. Add a horse or two, and the Big Wheel was a mobile marvel that was sold throughout the United States and Canada.





Throughout the late 1800s, trains and ships were the main modes of transportation. The trouble was, the wheels beneath early locomotives — powered by a conventional rod engine — would spin and lose traction on steep grades. Ephraim Shay, a logger in Ionia County, near Grand Rapids, redesigned locomotives so that each wheel was powered by a separate bevel gear. The innovation, along with the rearrangement of the engine, boiler, and other components, meant Shay — a Civil War veteran who served under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman — could offer industrial America an efficient way to transport large loads like lumber from the forest to the mill. The Shay locomotive was synonymous with power and was as popular as “The real McCoy.”





Tracing its roots to 1866, Parke, Davis & Co. established the world’s first pharmaceutical research laboratory in 1880, as well as a system to conduct clinical trials on new medications. The company developed numerous drugs such as Coley’s toxins, the first cancer vaccine, and a pure form of adrenaline, and it was the first company to transition from herbal remedies to biological drugs. One of the largest companies in Michigan, in 1902 Parke Davis built a 25-acre medical campus along the Detroit River. All of the buildings were sheathed in red bricks accented by large, swivel windows. Detroiters today know the development as Stroh River Place. Through a series of mergers and buyouts, Parke Davis was folded into Pfizer in 2000.





Henry Herbert Dow saw his first company fall into bankruptcy, and he was asked to leave a second business when the investors didn’t approve of his research projects. Dow’s claim to fame was the development of an efficient method of extracting bromine from brine; he went on to extract chloride and caustic soda from sodium chloride. After establishing Dow Chemical Co. in Midland in 1896, the inventor acquired the company that had removed him from office. Additionally, when a German cartel threatened to put Dow out of business by flooding the market by selling bromine cheaply, Dow, a cunning competitor, bought as much as he could, repackaged the material, and sold it for a profit in Germany. It was months before the cartel realized the surge in demand in the U.S., and the subsequent undercutting of fixed prices in Germany, was the result of Dow’s buying spree. The cartel quickly ceased their predatory pricing.





Charles Brady King, the first person to drive a motorized vehicle in Detroit in early 1896, became a local hero for his invention — but his fame transcended the horseless carriage. He helped a young Henry Ford develop his quadricycle a few months later, even lending Ford a few components. King went on to be the first to position the steering wheel on the left-hand side of automobiles, and developed the first practical V8 engine. An automaker himself, King worked for two early auto pioneers: Olds Motor Works and Northern Manufacturing Co. A prolific inventor, King introduced the jackhammer, a steam shovel, various transmissions, and a reversible steam engine. Without King, Henry Ford might never have reached international prominence.






Olds Motor Vehicle Co., the world’s first factory dedicated solely to automobile manufacturing, was established by Ransom E. Olds and various investors at East Jefferson and Concord near Belle Isle (later to become the site of the Uniroyal factory). The company had started producing automobiles in Lansing in 1897, but a new owner moved production to Detroit to be closer to suppliers. The Olds plant utilized an automotive assembly line, but it didn’t move. In addition to building the first low-cost, mass-produced vehicles, Olds offered cars powered by gas, steam, and electricity. Following a devastating fire in 1901, Olds production returned to Lansing. Olds left the company in a dispute and went on to found REO Motor Car Co. in Lansing, which produced vehicles until 1975.





Referred to as the father of interchangeable parts, Henry Leland was a master mechanic and engineer who played a key role in founding Cadillac Motor Car Co. and Lincoln Motor Co. After Henry Ford sold his interest in the second of three automobile companies he was active in, the remaining owners asked Leland to appraise Henry Ford Co. in preparation for liquidation. After he advised that the business be reorganized, Cadillac Motor Car Co. entered the marketplace. Leland worked to standardize parts in addition to making components interchangeable. When Cadillac was sold to General Motors in 1909, Leland remained with the automaker until 1917, when he founded Lincoln. Running into a recession and bad luck, Lincoln became insolvent and was acquired by Ford in 1922. Leland also was credited with inventing electric barber clippers.





Born in Scotland, David Dunbar Buick moved to Detroit with his parents and eventually took over a plumbing company with a partner. A tinkerer, Buick worked on internal combustion engines in the 1890s, to the dismay of his business partner. When the plumbing company was sold, Buick had the capital to continue with his research full time. At first, Buick wanted to manufacture engines for use by farmers, as well as an automobile. Burning through money, he returned to his investors several times. In the early years, Buick developed a revolutionary overhead valve engine — every other automaker of the day utilized a less powerful side-valve engine. In 1903, Buick Motor Co. was formed and proved to be the basis for the founding of General Motors in 1908. Unfortunately, Buick had taken a severance package two years earlier and, following a series of unsuccessful investments, he died a rather poor man in 1929.





Known mostly for his industrial architecture, including the first use of reinforced concrete at the Packard Motor Car Co. on Detroit’s east side in 1903, Albert Kahn and his firm created hundreds of factories, homes, public buildings, office structures, and university projects around the world. The use of reinforced concrete was monumental for two reasons: the material was fire-resistant, a key factor given every other factory at the time was made of wood; and Kahn’s factories opened up interior spaces for the large-scale production of cars, engines, planes, and tanks. Often called the architect of Detroit, Kahn and his team designed many of the classic buildings at the University of Michigan. His last project was the Willow Run plant, which produced more than 8,600 B-24 Liberator bombers during World War II.





Henry Ford first gained fame as an automobile racer, but it wasn’t until he started his third business, Ford Motor Co., that he achieved international fame with the introduction of the Model T in 1908. If the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair served to transform America from an agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse, Ford and his Model T provided the horsepower. Designed in Ford’s Piquette Plant near what is now I-75 and West Grand Boulevard, the Model T offered a reliable four-cylinder engine as well as revolutionary front- and rear-beam axle springs that could traverse the tough dirt roads of the era. Priced as low as $300, the “Tin Lizzie” was an instant hit. Eventually, more than 15 million Model Ts were built.






William C. Durant and Frederic L. Smith, along with several other investors, established General Motors Holding Co. in Detroit, the first multibrand automaker that was targeted to a variety of tastes and incomes. While Durant gets most of the credit for consolidating 13 car companies, such as Buick and Olds, into the new enterprise, along with Cadillac and Chevrolet in short order, Smith was considered the iron fist. In the early 1900s, he bought up as many auto-related patents as possible and formed the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers.





With the roaring success of the Model T, Henry Ford turned to architect Albert Kahn to design a new factory to meet the demand: the Highland Park Ford Plant at Woodward and Manchester. Set on 120 acres, the manufacturing campus — which included its own power plant — was an engineering and manufacturing marvel. Seemingly every last detail was accounted for; the wooden crates carrying parts were disassembled and used for the car’s floorboards. In 1913, Ford added a moving assembly line, meaning a Model T could be built in 93 minutes — down from as much as 12 hours or longer. It was here that Ford launched the $5 workday and set work shifts at eight hours a day. Ford’s manufacturing efficiencies allowed the price of the Model T to drop from $750 to around $300.





A prolific inventor with 186 U.S. patents to his name, Charles Kettering, an electrical engineer, got his start in Dayton, Ohio, when he designed a cash register powered by electricity. When his friend, Edward Deeds, needed help assembling a kit car, Kettering swapped out the ignition system for a high-energy unit. In 1909, Deeds and Kettering established Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co., or Delco for short. From there, Henry Leland, who headed up Cadillac Motor Car Co., ordered 5,000 Delco ignition sets for introduction on 1910 models. A year later, Kettering’s electric starter was installed on the 1912 Cadillacs. Soon after, the electric starter became an industry standard.





Henry Ford’s Model T greatly assisted farmers in getting their output to market, but it was the affordable and reliable Fordson tractor that made the backbreaking task of toiling the soil a mere breeze. Priced at $750 when it was introduced in 1917, the Fordson tractor greatly improved efficiency and undercut what a farmer paid for horses and manpower. At first, the auto pioneer wanted Ford Motor Co. to build the tractor, but when some of the investors balked, Ford formed a new company with his son, Edsel Ford. The dispute was one of many that spurred Henry Ford to buy out all of his investors — the last of which were John and Horace Dodge, to whom he paid $25 million in 1919.





Still in its infancy, the aircraft industry was not for the faint of heart. Henry and Edsel Ford, like many other innovators, were intrigued by the prospect of developing a modern aviation industry. Working with aeronautical engineer William Stout, the Fords and several others invested in the Stout Metal Airplane Co. with the understanding that they would never get their $1,000 “contributions” back. Over time, Stout and his team developed the all-metal Trimotor, of which around 200 were built. The aircraft was easy to fly, proved durable, and demonstrated to the many naysayers that regular passenger service was attainable.






Still in its infancy, the aircraft industry was not for the faint of heart. Henry and Edsel Ford, like many other innovators, were intrigued by the prospect of developing a modern aviation industry. Working with aeronautical engineer William Stout, the Fords and several others invested in the Stout Metal Airplane Co. with the understanding that they would never get their $1,000 “contributions” back. Over time, Stout and his team developed the all-metal Trimotor, of which around 200 were built. The aircraft was easy to fly, proved durable, and demonstrated to the many naysayers that regular passenger service was attainable.





With a sick, infant daughter at home, Daniel Frank Gerber’s wife, Dorothy, suggested her husband develop strained baby food to ease the chore of cooking, mashing, and preparing food for her. Gerber’s father owned a canning company in Fremont, near Grand Rapids, and soon the pair was developing recipes, consulting with nutritional experts, and undertaking market research. At the time, most mothers believed a baby should be on a liquid diet for a year before transitioning to more solid foods. Prior to a national rollout, the Gerbers were careful to gain positive media coverage for their baby food in such mother-centric magazines as Good Housekeeping, as well as the Journal of the American Medical Association. Today, Gerber is among the largest producers of baby food in the world.





Eager to preserve America’s agricultural and industrial roots, Henry Ford collected more than 100 historic buildings and thousands of artifacts and placed them in various urban and village settings on land he owned in Dearborn. Often referred to as the world’s first theme park, the Henry Ford Museum (designed after Independence Hall in Philadelphia) and neighboring Greenfield Village includes such notable structures as Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park research laboratory, the Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop, Harvey Firestone’s family farm, and a replica of Henry Ford’s Mack Avenue plant. Originally called the Edison Institute, the attraction has added numerous activities over the years, including tours of  Ford’s truck assembly plant at the nearby Rouge complex. Today, the entire campus is known as The Henry Ford. An interesting side note, Walt Disney used Greenfield Village as a model for Disneyland, complete with a locomotive and passenger railcars that circle the park.





While Charles Brady King is credited with developing the V8 engine, Henry Ford brought it to the masses. From a replica of Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Fort Myers, Fla., located inside Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Ford and three trusted engineers worked secretly for more than a year to develop a small V8 that could be cast en block. The result was an engineering marvel, providing speed in a small package and instantly winning the admiration of lead-footers, youth, and even boaters. Given the economy in 1932, the engine was slow to take off. But thanks to a focus on Ford’s racing roots, along with fuel economy (the cars were made lighter),
the V8 caught on and literally sparked the hot-rodding craze. Even bank robber Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, praised the engine: “Even if my business hasen’t (sic) been strictly legal, it doesn’t hurt enything (sic) to tell you what a fine car you got in the Ford V8,” Barrow wrote to Ford.





A former U.S. airmail pilot who gained instant fame when he flew The Spirit of St. Louis solo from New York to Paris — the first person to successfully complete such a trip over the Atlantic Ocean — native Detroiter Charles Lindbergh proved to be more than a pilot. In addition to designing his own watch (still available from Longines) and assisting Henry and Edsel Ford with their Trimotor and various experimental aircraft, Lindbergh invented a glass perfusion pump, nicknamed the “Model T” pump, a precursor to heart surgeries. Working with Dr. Alexis Carrel, a Noble Prize winner, the pair wrote about the possibility of an artificial heart in the 1938 book, The Culture of Organs. It would take more than three decades before one was actually built. In later years, Lindbergh’s initial design contributed to the first heart-lung machines.






Leading up to World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been meeting secretly with the Big Three automakers to help arm England against Germany and Italy. Ford began producing gliders that could carry 30 men with their gear before the company received an order to build components for the B-24 Liberator bomber (in addition to a variant of the Jeep, gun carriers, tanks, and amphibious vehicles). For the bomber, the plan was that Ford would supply other aircraft manufacturers, but the process was so slow that the government asked to build the planes. For the first time, Ford utilized two assembly lines built as part of a new plant adjacent to Willow Run Airport, to speed up production. The innovation was telling: The plant went on to produce more than 8,600 Liberators.





A graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, Dr. Homer Stryker moved to Kalamazoo and worked on ways to improve patient comfort, including the development of the Circo-Electric Bed. In addition to
a turning frame, the device allowed doctors, nurses, and patients to adjust hospital beds in multiple vertical and horizontal positions. In 1943, Stryker created an oscillating electric saw to cut and remove casts without harming the skin. The device is still in wide use today. He also created a rubber heel for walking casts, a vast improvement over standard iron heels. In addition, he developed an oscillating electric saw that would cut bones without harming soft tissue. Over time, Stryker Corp. introduced various medical advances, including digital imaging systems, surgical instruments, implants, and an array of EMS equipment.





Before open-heart surgery was made possible, there was no means of effectively treating patients with heart conditions, especially given such potential side effects as blood clotting, infections, and hemorrhaging. That all changed when a surgeon at Harper Hospital in Detroit, Dr. Forest Dodrill — along with his medical team — reached out to a group of scientists and engineers at General Motors. The result was the mechanical heart pump. The  small device utilized vacuum pumps and air pressure to circulate blood through six separate chambers. The Dodrill-GMR Mechanical Heart Pump led to numerous advances in heart and lung surgery. Today, more than 1 million open-heart surgeries are performed each year using some form of a heart-lung machine. A model of the original heart pump is housed in a display case in the lobby of Harper Hospital.





Ready to rid the world of fossil fuels, Stanford Ovshinsky and his wife, Iris Dibner, started Energy Conversion Devices in Detroit in 1960. Over the next four decades, the couple and their research team introduced numerous advances, including a nickel-metal hybrid battery that is still in use today in smartphones, laptop computers, digital cameras, and electric vehicles. With more than 400 patents, ECD and its affiliates produced advances in thin solar energy panels, hydrogen fuel cells, and flat-screen liquid crystal displays. He also developed various electronic and optical switches, including Ovonic Phase Change Memory, which led
to rewritable CDs and DVDs.





Following the poor rollout of the Edsel line of cars in the late 1950s, Henry Ford II set out to invest in nonautomotive industries. In 1961, Ford acquired Philco, a manufacturer of consumer electronics, home appliances, and space and military equipment. From there, Philco and Ford’s then Aeronutronic Division developed various aerospace tracking systems and communications satellites. In 1976, Philco introduced seven satellites to connect some 95 countries, which resulted in live television transmissions. Philco also designed the NASA Mission Control Center in Houston.






John W. Hetricks, an industrial engineer in Connecticut, received the first patent issued for an airbag in 1953, though he lacked the funding to bring the product to market. The credit for the first working airbag in a production vehicle goes to General Motors and its research team, which introduced it in late 1973 on the Oldsmobile Toronado. Ford also was working on an airbag system, but the project was put on hold in 1971 when Stuart Frey, Ford’s then chief body engineer, nixed the rollout due to concerns over mass production and child safety. GM, working with its AC Electronics division, developed the necessary crash sensors needed to properly deploy an airbag during a crash. For various reasons, the airbag failed to catch on with the general public, and GM dropped it in 1977 after selling around 10,000 units. In 1981, Mercedes-Benz offered an airbag as an option, and made it a standard feature soon after. Most every other automaker followed suit, with Chrysler being the first U.S. automaker to offer airbags as standard equipment, and by 1998 Congress mandated that all light passenger vehicles be equipped with driver and passenger side airbags. Over the last decade, most automakers began offering side impact airbags, or curtain airbags, which have proved to prevent 45 percent of fatalities.





In response to the 1970 Clean Air Act, which set stringent tailpipe reduction targets, Haren Gandhi, a Ford research engineer, pioneered catalytic emissions control systems. Working with a team of scientists and engineers, Gandhi set the standard for exhaust systems that initially cut carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and nitric oxide emissions by 90 percent. Working to reduce harmful emissions from gasoline and diesel engines, Gandhi helped introduce or set the course for a string of advancements, including so-called three-way catalyst systems, air mass flow meters, improved oxygen sensors, microprocessor and software improvements, and onboard diagnostic systems. President George W. Bush awarded Gandhi the 2002 President’s National Medal of Technology for his research, development, and commercialization of automotive exhaust catalysts. Up until his death in 2010, Gandhi traveled the world to extol the benefits of clean air, especially in his native India.





Ann Arbor brothers
Tom and John Knoll co-developed a computer program to process digital image files — Tom wrote most of the code while John, an engineer at Industrial Light & Magic in California, worked on adding reading and writing file formatsas well image processing routines (the first filter plug-ins). While Tom continued to write code in Ann Arbor, John shopped the program to investors in Silicon Valley, including Apple and Adobe. Searching for a name, the pair tried ImagePro and PhotoHut, before settling on Photoshop. In fall 1988, Adobe agreed to license Photoshop, much to the delight of the Knoll brothers who reaped millions of dollars from the arrangement. In hindsight, Adobe would have been better off buying the program soon after its launch in 1990. At first, the program was available on the Apple Macintosh, and soon after, it became the industry standard. John works today as chief creative officer at Industrial Light & Magic, while Tom continues to work in Ann Arbor on various applications.





Lipitor, the best selling drug in pharmaceutical history (generating more than $125 billion in revenue), was instrumental in reducing blood cholesterol levels, averting heart disease, and saving countless lives. Developed by Bruce D. Roth, a chemist with Parke-Davis & Co. in Detroit and Ann Arbor (since acquired by Pfizer), Lipitor limits an enzyme found in liver tissue that can overproduce cholesterol in the body. Roth, who holds or shares 42 patents, also served as an adjunct professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While Pfizer’s patent on Lipitor (originally called atorvastatin) expired in late 2011, a variety of generic manufacturers continue to produce the drug around the world.





With more people spending time behind a desk, and seemingly hunched over any variety of computer screens, the Aeron chair developed by designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf at Herman Miller in Zeeland couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Following months of research, including multiple visits to senior home residences, the Aeron was designed to improve health while being durable, environmentally friendly, and easy to repair and disassemble. Stumpf explained it best: “The human form has no straight lines; it is biomorphic. We designed the chair to be, above all, biomorphic, or curvilinear, as a metaphor of human form in the visual as well as the tactile sense.” Going on to sell millions of units, the Aeron chair is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.