Detroit in 1850 exhibited little in the way of mechanical ingenuity. The fur trade was fading as the city’s chief export, replaced by salted fish. The population of 21,019 had developed a fairly robust agricultural market, and the timber industry was starting to catch on.
So how was it that Detroit — just 50 years later — would give rise to the automotive industry and countless innovations such as the assembly line, the mechanical heart pump, the all-electric auto starter, and the first modern pharmaceutical laboratory?
The only advantage Detroit had over other frontier towns in 1850 was its location at the narrowest part of a river that connected two major bodies of water. By 1860, mercantile shipping was flourishing as goods like clothing, food, tobacco, and lumber were easily exported. But it was imports, namely immigration, which gave rise to the Motor City.
Without Henry Ford, David Dunbar Buick, Ransom E. Olds, and others, Detroit would not have been able to sustain its economic miracle. Another important factor in the ascent of the automotive industry and numerous other advances was Michigan’s bounty of natural resources. Plentiful forests, massive sand dunes, copper and iron mines, as well as silver, gold, and slate, complemented the abundance of fresh water — not just the Great Lakes, but the region’s many rivers and watersheds.
In settling on the source of Detroit’s inventive streak, a key development was the opening of the Hamtramck Iron Works in 1856. The blast furnace ushered in the industrial age in Michigan, and at companies like Eureka Iron & Steel Works and Wyandotte Rolling Mills, Michigan workers produced the first steel rails and the first Bessemer steel in America. Soon, the city was known as the stove-manufacturing capital of the world.
From this early start, the foundation for a mechanical revolution was set. St. Joseph resident Clarissa Britain, for example, held seven patents by 1864, including a boiler and a floor warmer.
The first popularized inventor of the era was Elijah McCoy. Like nearly every important breakthrough, McCoy’s innovation was borne from limitation. In the 1800s, locomotives had lots of moving parts — but no ready means to lubricate them. In fact, numerous men were assigned to grease various parts by hand before a locomotive could begin barreling over the rails.
But that wasn’t even the half of it. The locomotive needed to be lubricated throughout a trip to prevent parts from breaking — or, even worse, from grinding together and causing engine fires. Major accidents loomed in the event of such unfortunate mishaps.
Enter McCoy’s automatic lubricating cup, which debuted in 1872. Born in Colchester, Ontario, in 1844, McCoy lived in Kentucky during his youth. Later, as an African-American seeking to avoid slavery, he headed north prior to the Civil War and settled in Detroit. There, he experimented with automatic lubricating devices. By developing a cup that would regulate the flow of oil to moving machinery parts, he created a standard so highly respected that inspectors wary of the inevitable copycats would ask if they were seeing “the real McCoy.”
“His lubricating cup was adopted very quickly by all of the American railroads because it saved a large amount of labor,” says Charles K. Hyde, professor emeritus at Wayne State University in Detroit, who specializes in the history of technology, industrial archeology, and automotive history. “By assuring that the moving parts that needed lubrication received it constantly, it eliminated breakage, fires, and accidents that sometimes occurred when moving parts ran dry.”
On a related front, locomotives of the day were confined to rather flat stretches of land. This presented a challenge to the burgeoning timber industry, as logs couldn’t be moved without a river. Ephraim Shay, who grew up in the Ionia County village of Muir, looked to change that by developing a locomotive that could haul lumber across land. But given the rolling, hilly terrain that inevitably stood in the way of a cross-country lumber haul, this would have to be no ordinary locomotive.
The Shay model, the first geared steam locomotive, was specially engineered to haul heavy loads up steep grades. The means to the Shay locomotive’s effectiveness was that all of the wheels, even the ones under the tender, were driven simultaneously. The innovation kept the drive wheels from spinning and burning the rails. While the Shay locomotive has long since become obsolete, its long-term impact is impossible to ignore.
“He doesn’t have the presence in the present that folks like (Thomas) Edison and (Henry) Ford do, because the technology he’s associated with doesn’t have that visibility in our lives today,” says Marc Greuther, curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. “But it’s noteworthy.
“The logging industry was a huge deal in Michigan, and the problems associated with the scale of that industry — based on the seasons, the weather, the limitations of those sites — was a huge factor,” Greuther continues. “Here was someone who looked at the disadvantages and drawbacks, and found ways of exploring beyond them.”
Manistee merchant Silas Overpack, meanwhile, contributed to the timber industry with the introduction of the Big Wheel in 1875. The invention solved a curious problem for lumbermen looking to haul heavy logs across Michigan terrain at certain times of the year — particularly spring. Given the weighty nature of the cargo, wheels would often sink into the wet, muddy surface that spans the state.
Overpack’s invention, widely known also as the Michigan logging wheel, changed that. Manufactured from maple and ironwood, and equipped with iron rims, the oversized Michigan logging wheel would not get stuck in the muck, and would actually carry logs spanning 100 feet below the axle, rather than above it, like a wagon.
Hyde says Overpack’s invention opened up new possibilities for the logging industry in Michigan. “The Big Wheel made it possible for Michigan lumbermen — and lumbermen everywhere — to carry out logging year-round and away from where the rivers ran,” he says.
Eventually, Overpack developed a partnership with Redding Iron Works to market and sell his Big Wheel around the country.
By the early 1890s, Michigan’s manufacturing strength was such that Ransom E. Olds built a three-wheeled steam car. But by 1897, he graduated to a more reliable gasoline buggy and opened the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in Lansing. Olds quickly made improvements, and by the turn of the century he began mass-producing the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, selling 2,100 cars in 1902 and 5,000 cars in 1904.
While Henry Ford, who had started two other automobile companies (the second business was taken over by investors and became Cadillac Motor Car Co.) before founding Ford Motor Co. in 1903, is largely credited with developing the moving assembly line, Olds actually deserves the credit.
Olds had a reputation for being difficult to work with. He had sold his company to Samuel Smith in 1899, after which it was relocated to Detroit.
When Smith’s son, Frank, came into the business, he had numerous run-ins with Olds, who served as vice president and general manager. In 1904, Olds left and formed the REO Motor Car Co. in Lansing.
In the ensuing years, Detroit became the heart for rapid advancements in car designs that led to multi-cylinder engines, transmissions, leaf springs, foot-operated brakes, the steering wheel, and pneumatic tires. But durability proved to be a major challenge, given the lack of paved roads and reliable, standardized parts.
Enter Ford, who in 1908 introduced the Model T. The car proved durable, and with the successful use of mass-production techniques, Ford was able to drop the price of the car nearly every year (more than 15 million Model Ts were produced).
The other beneficial aspect of the Model T was its versatility. Because Ford initiated the concept of standardized components, repair shops and junkyards had an endless supply of cheap, interchangeable parts that could be bolted together to keep a Model T on the road indefinitely.
Perhaps the greatest testimony to Ford’s impact is the extent to which his innovation continues to be imitated, even more than 100 years later.
Joining Ford in the annals of automotive history is David Dunbar Buick, who produced internal combustion engines in 1902 in Detroit before quickly offering an entire vehicle. Buick was the first to develop the overhead valve engine, which provided more horsepower than the conventional side-valve powertrain.
His company laid the foundation for the formation of General Motors in 1908, although Buick had taken a buyout two years earlier. He dabbled in real estate for a time and, after a couple of brief stints at other automakers, was an instructor at the Detroit School of Trades. He died in 1929.
Many other inventors contributed to the advancement of the automobile industry and the status of the city, including Charles “Boss” Kettering (140 patents), Edsel Ford, Louis Chevrolet, Walter P. Chrysler, Billy Durant, and John and Horace Dodge. To date, more than 100,000 patents have been filed that relate to the automotive industry.
The Big Three automakers, along with smaller players like Packard and Studebaker, also contributed mightily to arming the troops leading up to and during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt had been meeting secretly with Henry Ford, GM President Bill Knudsen, and others as early as 1938 in preparation for arming Europe and Britain against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
As America entered the war in 1941, Chrysler was already producing tanks and other heavy-duty trucks, while Ford began to ramp up the production of B-24 bombers at its Willow Run plant. GM built numerous armaments, as well. In Detroit, known as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” city leaders also played a role, pushing ahead quickly with the first freeways — the Davison and I-94 — to improve transportation lines between the factories.
General Motors also introduced many innovations related to all-electric ignition systems, solar cells, and hydrogen fuel cells. It also developed the inertial guidance system for the Apollo space program.
Medical advances were many. Detroit’s Parke-Davis, a forerunner to Pfizer, developed the first modern laboratory, as well as a system to conduct clinical trials on new medications. Among the numerous drugs introduced by Parke-Davis — the laboratory and offices were located in what is now Stroh River Place — were Coley’s toxins, the first cancer vaccine.
In the postwar years, meanwhile, numerous scientists and engineers at General Motors developed the mechanical heart pump, leading to the first successful open heart surgery at Harper Hospital in 1952. Dr. Forest Dewey Dodrill used the machine to bypass Henry Opitek’s left ventricle for nearly an hour while he opened up the patient’s left atrium and worked to repair his faulty valve.
Herbert Henry Dow, like many inventors turned capitalists, started out slowly, having lost control of two companies before founding Dow Chemical Co. in Midland in 1896. Dow first gained fame by filing a patent for an efficient method of extracting bromine from brine. He also wasn’t afraid of stiff competition. After distributing bromine in the United States, Dow moved to the export markets in 1904. But the German bromine cartel responded by dropping its prices and flooding the U.S. market, in a bid to drive Dow out of business. Dow turned the tables on the cartel by buying up as much of the cheap bromine as possible, repackaging it, and selling it for a sizeable profit in Germany. Eventually, the cartel caught on to Dow and they were forced to raise their prices.
Other advances with Michigan roots were borne from opportunity. In the late 19th century, two Battle Creek brothers conceived a better way to deliver the most important meal of the day in the form of ready-to-eat cereal. What William K. Kellogg and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg developed in southwest Michigan would soon change breakfast the world over.
“The ready-to-eat breakfast cereal people revolutionized what Americans, and ultimately, most of the world, ate for breakfast,” Hyde says. “These cereals saved (people) a huge amount of time in cooking breakfast. They were also, at that time, a much healthier food to eat for breakfast than what people had eaten before.”
At the time, Dr. Kellogg ran a sanitarium, and the introduction of mass-produced cereal drew considerable interest. As the story goes, Dr. Kellogg claims one of his patients, Charles William Post, stole the corn flakes recipe from the safe at the sanitarium, using it to start the rival company, Post Cereals.
Battle Creek also gave rise to the development of mass-produced penicillin. John C. Sheehan, born in 1915 to the managing editor of the Battle Creek Enquirer, took an early interest in science, which earned him a microscope as a gift.
As he developed in his career as a scientist, Sheehan became convinced he could do what most at the time considered impossible — find a way to effect the chemical synthesis of penicillin. At that time, the most advanced form of the drug was achieved by simple fermentation, and while the U.S. government had spent many years trying to make the drug effective for more purposes, the results were disappointing.
Sheehan eschewed the traditional methods of chemical synthesis at the time, and toiled for years on something that no one could be sure would produce results. But it did, in 1957, when Sheehan successfully achieved chemical synthesis of penicillin V.
Sturgis High School graduate Albert Todd, who traveled abroad in the 1860s studying the properties of various mints, returned to Michigan in 1869 and set up A.M. Todd Co. in Kalamazoo, where it still operates to this day. After his travels, Todd applied what he had learned to the creation of a process by which oils from mints could be distilled and then graded. That made it possible to use them in flavoring everything from mints and gum to toothpaste.
Apparently Todd was a bigger fan of minty flavors than he was of imbibing spirits, since he also ran for governor as a prohibition candidate in 1894. Unsuccessful but undeterred, he later was elected to Congress from the district that then included Kalamazoo — serving only one term before losing his re-election bid in 1898.
But no one could dethrone him from his title as the “Peppermint King.”
In the late 1920s, the only way to puree food was by hand. Mechanizing the process was the challenge that faced Fremont High School graduate Frank Gerber and his son, Daniel, when Daniel’s sickly daughter, Sally, needed a diet of pureed foods as recommended by the family doctor.
Frank Gerber already owned a successful canning company, and when the family struggled with the preparation of Sally’s food, Daniel’s wife, Pauline, suggested they develop a special formula for babies. With canning and marketing capacities already in hand, the Gerbers found quick success making and selling baby food. It wasn’t long before Fremont Canning Co. evolved into Gerber Products Co., which still operates out of Fremont, although it has changed hands several times in recent years and is owned today by Nestle.
Many other inventors have stoked Michigan’s fortunes, including more recent innovators like Sid Meier, widely known as the “Father of Computer Gaming.” In 1982, Meier, a University of Michigan graduate, created one of the first combat flight simulators while in Ann Arbor, before moving on to develop strategy games like Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. Today, Meier, director of creative development at Firaxis Games, serves as a living reminder that Michigan’s ingenuity put the world on wheels, contributed mightily to the creation of the middle class, and saved countless lives.