Star Tribune and Associated Press file photos
The pursuit of inventiveness
Just around the corner from a big Menards store in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood are some buildings where military gliders were built during World War II. When the war was over, Bill Norris, a native of Nebraska and veteran of the U.S. Navy, helped persuade some federal officials to let experienced codebreakers come to St. Paul to start a company there. It was called Engineering Research Associates and, even then, a customer thought it should find a nicer home, Norris said years later. No plaque or marker signifies the historical importance of the place today. But with a little imagination, you can picture it in 1946, when the company known as ERA gave birth to Minnesota’s high-tech industry. To me, it’s the best place to think about a century and a half of imaginative, hardworking Minnesotans whose ideas and muscle turned brush-scrubbed prairie and forest into a place that today is one of wealthiest and most productive on the planet. Their achievements are numerous and diverse; Minnesota is not a single-industry state, nor is Minneapolis-St. Paul a company town. But, as with that ERA factory, so much of what they did and where they did it seem as distant as yesterday’s headlines. Yet the impact of the innovators is clear. They gave us leisure — time to create and appreciate art, enjoy our land and lakes, play and watch sports. They always stretched. “The emphasis in ERA was always on solving problems, and you used the state of the art to do it,” Norris said. “You didn’t advance the state of the art unless you had to.” Which is another way of saying that invention, some novel idea, often isn’t as hard as innovation, which is making something useful out of the idea.
Among Minnesota’s colorful innovators is Edgar Hetteen, instrumental in the creation of both Polaris Industries and Arctic Cat. He contributed nothing to the invention of the snowmobile, wasn’t even in town when Polaris built its first one. But it’s fair to credit him with inventing snowmobiling as a sport. And thus another big Minnesota industry was born. 3M Co. became so well-known for innovation that the company’s official corporate history is called “A Century of Innovation.” One of the maxims of longtime 3M Chairman William McKnight: “Listen to anyone with an original idea, no matter how absurd it might sound at first.” It was mostly luck that landed ERA in the same town as 3M. The military brass just wanted all of its code-breaking problem-solvers in one spot. ERA created new computing machines, including one called Demon to crack one of the Soviet Union’s codes. The Soviets simply changed their code, and that pretty much ended the era of ERA’s special-purpose machines, but it went on to create programmable ones. The company was sold but its people stayed put, and an industry grew. Norris eventually helped launch Control Data, a giant that once employed more than 25,000 Minnesotans. In the 1970s, most of the U.S. computer makers — IBM and the Bunch (which stood for Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell) — had big operations in the state. As a result, much more got created here than just computer company jobs, as these companies wouldn’t have succeeded without the pool of know-how that developed among their suppliers. When ERA needed to improve a kind of early disk drive called a memory drum, it got its spray-on magnetic drum coating from 3M.
After the business consolidated, the precision manufacturers, engineering shops and the like found work with a burgeoning medical device manufacturing industry. It’s fair to say that without their expertise, the medical device business wouldn’t have taken off so quickly in the first place. Making medical devices remains an important Minnesota industry, and much like ERA’s base in a drafty glider factory in St. Paul, the device industry here also has a humble origin story. There were companies in Minnesota making medical equipment when Medtronic got its start in 1949. None of them had a location quite like the Hermundslie garage on 19th Avenue NE. in Minneapolis. It sounds like a Silicon Valley stereotype, working out of temporary digs as Apple’s famous co-founders did for a few months. Yet Medtronic’s founders were still in that garage in 1957, when they first produced a wearable, battery-powered cardiac pacemaker.
Medtronic’s early years read a lot like ERA’s, with plenty of collaborative problem-solving in a space that was never meant to be lab. A recent walk down 19th Avenue confirmed that the old Medtronic garage is no longer there, but just around the corner is a 104-year-old renovated light-bulb factory that’s called the Highlight Center. It and several nearby buildings house emerging technology companies. How many of the millennials powering those start-ups know that they are just steps from the birthplace of one of the state’s biggest and most innovative companies? Let’s hope that in 20 years, or even 50, what’s being created now in the Highlight Center will live on — with a plaque to fill us in on the details.