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Innovation – making something useful out of a good idea – has popped up all over Minnesota's history, from fields to labs, garages to hospitals.
Essay by Lee Schafer

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Cargill: Grain trader W.W. Cargill establishes his headquarters in Albert Lea, and the Cargill family is prominent in grain elevator and society news over the next decades. The company becomes a global food producer.

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Duluth Canal: Legend has it that Sidney Luce, a local brewer, summons residents to bring their shovels to finish the project before politicians in Wisconsin can persuade federal officials to halt it.

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Flour: On May 3, 1878, the headlines report “A Record of Terror” — the explosion of the Washburn mill. The city dusts itself off and becomes known as Mill City, the milling capital of the nation, producing innovations in milling and hydroelectric power.

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Thermostat: Albert Butz of Minneapolis invents the thermostat, which looks a bit like a cat door and gives us the ability to control temperature in a building. The patent is bought in 1906 by one Mark Honeywell.

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Railroads: The Great Northern Railway comes into being, eventually stretching from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, part of Empire Builder James J. Hill’s empire.

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Hormel: Geo. A. Hormel & Co. is founded in Austin, later developing the world’s first canned ham (1926), Dinty Moore beef stew (1935) and its most famous product, Spam (1937), now featured in Austin's Spam Museum.

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Canning: John S. Hughes persuades leaders in Le Sueur to build a cannery, first known as the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, now known for the Jolly Green Giant. “Any community which wants to start a cannery should send a man to see Mr. Hughes,” declares a 1906 article.

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Red Wing Shoes: A shoe merchant in Red Wing creates a company making work boots. A 1918 story extols the company’s part in increasing wartime production by providing sturdy farm footwear.

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Mayo: The Mayo brothers and associates officially adopt the name “Mayo Clinic.” But the Mayos are already famous by then. An 1883 story from Rochester mentions a man kicked by a horse; “the Drs. Mayo fixed up the face, but it was a sorry looking one.”

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3M: A small-scale mining venture called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. is founded in 1902. In the early 1920s, the company invents waterproof sandpaper, a big step for the automobile industry. Among 3M’s many later contributions: masking tape (1925), Scotch tape (1930), and of course Post-it notes (1980).

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Betty Crocker: In response to customer letters, the Washburn Crosby Company creates Betty Crocker, establishing a personage who answers cooking questions on the radio and becomes a marketing sensation.

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Tilt-A-Whirl: The spinning amusement park ride is invented in Faribault. A year later, it’s one of the thrills offered to star newspaper carriers, along with the “Mysterious Sensation,” at a picnic held for them.

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Medtronic: Earl Bakken and his brother-in-law start the company as a medical equipment repair shop. In 1957, Bakken develops the first battery-powered wearable pacemaker. A 1959 headline declares, "Device keeps heart beating for 6 months."

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Mining: A giant headline in 1940 warns, “State mining may die in 35 years.” But in the 1950s, the U’s E.W. Davis figures out how to take iron ore out of taconite rock, saving Minnesota’s mining industry.

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Open-heart surgery: University of Minnesota doctor C. Walton Lillehei, known as the father of open heart surgery for a groundbreaking 1952 operation, is shown in a 1955 photo package with a little girl who had the surgery: “… and Today Pamela is Fine.”

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Snowmobiling: Two brothers-in-law in Roseau build a snowmobile and form a company called Polaris. “Grandfather of snowmobiling” Edgar Hetteen takes his snow sled across Alaska in 1960, reportedly to cries of “Get a dog.”

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Malls: Southdale, among the world’s first indoor shopping malls, opens in Edina. A front-page story about the groundbreaking in 1954 shows Donald C. Dayton wielding a shovel.

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Green Revolution: Norman Borlaug of the University of Minnesota develops high-yield crops credited with averting famine predicted in the 1960s.
In 1970, he wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Retail: “We subscribe to the spectrum theory of retailing,” says Donald C. Dayton in a 1962 newspaper, the year Dayton’s opens its first Target store.

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Rollerblades: The Olson brothers of Minneapolis invent Rollerblades and market them as hockey training skates, advertising demos with famous NHLers.

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Apples: The U develops the Honeycrisp apple and introduces it to the world in 1991. It's described in an October 1990 article as “apple shrapnel in your mouth.”

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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.