Working in his small home shop in the mid-1950s, Norman Swanson built a new style of lawn mower. He’d set out to tackle a personal problem, but his solution had universal appeal. The mowing system Swanson devised would revolutionize an industry.
Norman Swanson was born in central Wisconsin in 1919. A self-described tinkerer from an early age, Swanson cultivated his skills through a range of experiences as a young man—including enrolling in the Civilian Conservation Corps after high school, working at a machine shop, and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—before landing a job producing motion picture film projectors for an Illinois-based production company in 1946. There, Swanson displayed his ability to not only visualize creative technological solutions, but implement them. Swanson developed a new timing device for film projectors that was so impressive, a mentor suggested he apply for his first patent.
Norman Swanson first patented technology he developed for film projectors after World War II. / Image from Google Patents
Swanson set up a small shop in his garage where he could work on overtime jobs for the production company. His operation included a lathe, milling machine, band saw, welder, and other equipment for building film projectors—and, it turned out, just about anything else Swanson could think up. So when he conceived an idea to improvethe irksome chore of mowing his property, Swanson was well-equipped to bring it to life.
Norman Swanson lived on five acres with an apple orchard of 21 trees, each surrounded by a little mound of earth. By combining components of several conventional mowers, Swanson had devised a makeshift machine that could cut a swath of about 6 feet—but it was no match for the undulating landscape, which was peppered not only with stationary tree trunks, but often also loose tree limbs. During one frustrating mow around 1956, Swanson said to himself, “This is crazy. I’m going to do something about it.” Inspired by a Montgomery & Ward mower with a single rotating blade, Swanson acquired and cut down three mower blades, arranged them, and attached the system to his walk-behind garden tractor to create his first prototype "multiple cutter power mower." He also designed a deflector above the blades to better pulverize the grass clippings. For the next iteration, Swanson mounted a multiple-cutter system beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor. He recalled being “so pleased with the results.” Three small blades required less horsepower than one big one, and he “could go right up to the trees and around. It was unbelievable.” Swanson applied for two patents on these lawn mowing innovations and received them in 1959.
Norman Swanson mounted his innovative multiple-cutter system to his walk-behind garden tractor (see image at very top of post) and then beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor to create his first prototype lawn mowers. /THF175803
Patent drawings illustrate Swanson’s multiple-cutter system (top) and deflector (bottom), which helped pulverize grass clippings. / Images from Google Patents
Swanson wasn’t the only one impressed with his new lawn mower design. A neighbor requested a multiple-cutter system for his own tractor and then introduced Swanson to a farm equipment manufacturer, Pennington Manufacturing, who supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Bradley line of lawn and garden equipment. Swanson contracted with Pennington, building a successful demonstration prototype for Sears and a second prototype that became the basis for the Bradley mower manufactured by Pennington and sold through Sears from 1958–1960. Unfortunately, a conflict over royalties ended Swanson’s arrangement with Pennington, and he settled without receiving full payment or credit for his patented designs—even though they remained central to mowers sold by Sears and other major manufacturers.
Norman Swanson built and demonstrated a prototype (top) for Sears executives, convincing them to use his design (bottom) for the company’s Bradley line of lawn mowers. / THF175758 and THF175760
Though somewhat dismayed, Swanson pressed on. He explored the possibility of producing a new riding mower, called the Wil-Mow, with a metal parts manufacturer in Michigan. Though the Wil-Mow never went into production, the partnership was not fruitless. Along the way, Swanson collaborated with a fellow lawn mower enthusiast to design and patent supports to secure a mower’s blades and keep them from damaging turf. The Wil-Mow prototype—manufactured in Michigan with a transmission built by Norman Swanson and his son, Curtis—included this patented feature.
Having weathered troubled partnerships for nearly a decade, Norman Swanson decided to try going into business for himself. He and his son built and sold 50 mowers under the Swanson name before ultimately deciding to step away from lawn mower manufacture.
Though the “Wil-Mow” (top) never went into production, and only fifty of Swanson’s mowers (bottom) were ever sold, these machines represent the lasting technological change Norman Swanson contributed to lawn mower manufacture. / THF175761 and THF175759
Curtis Swanson poses with one of his father’s prototype lawn mowers in November 2018. / Photo by Debra Reid.
Norman Swanson didn’t gain fame or fortune, but he understood the lasting importance of his contributions to lawn mower development. In an interview conducted by Debra Reid, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, in November 2018—less than a year before his 100th birthday—Swanson acknowledged that “the whole industry [was] operating” with the basic ideas he patented. Indeed, the technological improvements Norman Swanson developed remain standard on many lawn mowers sold today. The machines he built, now in the collections of The Henry Ford, continue to tell his story.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was based on the research and writing of Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment.
Through an initiative funded by The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and The Avangrid Foundation, the Invention Convention Worldwide team at The Henry Ford has created a pathway to connect sustainability to invention for our students in the classroom. Through the lens of biomimicry, student inventors examine how some of humanity’s greatest inventions have been formed by the world around them and how they can tap into nature to find sustainable solutions, while problem solving by using biomimicry.
A great example of this comes from Florida fifth grader and 2020 Invention Convention participant Xavier Baquero-Iglesias and his invention SoleX Turf: Good for Your Sole, Good for Your Plant. SoleX Turf is an invention that uses the principle of photosynthesis and the practice of biomimicry. This artificial turf uses the principles of photosynthesis to collect and create energy from the sun while cooling the temperature of the turf to be more enjoyable for players.
Image of Martha Coston from her 1886 autobiography. (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)
Inventor Martha Coston overcame 19th-century gender stereotypes to help change the course of the Civil War, as well as boating safety. In 1848, tragedy struck when Martha’s husband, a successful inventor formerly employed in the Washington Navy Yard, died as a result of chemical exposure from his gas lighting experiments. His death was followed by the deaths of two of their children and a mother Martha was close to, and a relative mishandling Martha's remaining money. Martha was left a single mother with minimal support.
Sylvic Gas Light, B. Franklin Coston, Patentee, Washington City, D.C. N.B., Gas Light Generator, 1845. / THF287321
Martha needed a way to support herself and her two remaining children. Within her husband's papers, she discovered drawings for a pyrotechnic night signal that could be used by ships to communicate. After finding that the invention didn't work, she took on years of experiments in hopes of creating a functional signal flare. With no knowledge of chemistry or scientific methodology, Martha relied on others for help. Men often ignored her, didn't take her seriously, or deceived her.
Section of the First Transatlantic Cable, 1858. / THF77301
The signal set used three colors to create coded messages. As a patriotic woman, Martha wanted flares that burned red, white, and blue. While she had developed recipes for red and white, blue remained elusive. A breakthrough came in 1858, when Martha was in New York City watching fireworks during celebrations for the first transatlantic cable.
Illustration from an 1858 Harper's Weekly depicting the New York translatlantic cable firework celebration. / THF265993
Inspired by the fireworks, Martha wrote New York pyrotechnists looking for a strong blue, corresponding under a man's name for fear that she would be ignored. Instead of a blue, Martha was able to locate a recipe for a brilliant green. In 1859, Patent No. 23,536, a pyrotechnic night signal and code system, was granted, with Martha Coston as administrator—and her late husband as the inventor.
U.S. Army Model 1862 Percussion Signal Pistol, circa 1862. / THF170773
The U.S. Navy showed high interest in Martha's invention, but stalled the purchase of the patent until 1861, after the Civil War erupted. With a blockade of Southern ports in place, the Navy needed Martha's flares to communicate. Her business, the Coston Manufacturing Company, produced the flares and sold them at cost for the duration of the war. New York gun manufacturer William Marston produced the signal pistol above to exclusively fire Coston's multicolored signal flare.
A carte-de-visite depicting the "Official Escorts for the Japanese Ambassador's Visit to the United States,” circa 1860. Admiral David Dixon Porter is pictured right. / THF211796
In her 1886 autobiography,A Signal Success: The Work and Travels of Mrs. Martha J. Coston, Martha acknowledged the use of her flares in the success of the blockade. Confederate ships known as blockade-runners regularly sailed at night, and Coston's flares helped Union ships pursue these runners effectively, often resulting in prize money for the ship's officers. Admiral David Porter, pictured on the right above, wrote Martha about the impact her flares had on military operations, saying:
"The signals by night are very much more useful than the signals by day made with flags, for at night the signals can be so plainly read that mistakes are impossible, and a commander-in-chief can keep up a conversation with one of his vessels."
In January 1865, Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the last open port of the Confederacy. To cut the port off, Admiral David Porter and Major General Alfred Terry coordinated a joint assault of sea and land forces. The ensuing conflict, known as the Battle of Fort Fisher, resulted in a Union victory.
Illustration from an 1865 Harper's Weekly depicting the fall of Fort Fisher. / THF287568
According to Admiral Porter, Martha Coston's flares played a critical role. He later reminisced, "I shall never forget the beautiful sight presented at ten o'clock at night when Fort Fisher fell.... The order was given to send up rockets without stint and to burn the Coston Signals at all the yard-arms."
After the war, Martha Coston continued to improve upon her invention, filing several more patents—this time in her own name. When the United States Life-Saving Service, precursor to the United States Coast Guard, began using the Coston flare, Martha's invention became standard safety equipment for all boating vessels. Worldwide adoption of her invention led to the success of Martha's business, Coston Supply Company, which focused on maritime safety and stayed in business until the late 20th century.
Illustration from an 1881 Harper's Weekly depicting the United States Life-Saving Service using the Coston flare. / THF287571
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
"It is innovative thinking such as this which dares to dream that we could travel to space, to the moon and eventually to Mars," said Joan Higginbotham, a former astronaut and director of human exploration primes at Raytheon Technologies. She was awarding this year's Most Innovative Award. The winner? Anirudh Cowlagi, inventor of AstroTrack, a Python-based solution to aid with the detection and characterization of minor planets in the solar system.
"Advances in the field of planetary science have been dramatic over the last few decades," Anirudh explained. "However, with this new data comes a need for more effective methods of analysis." Anirudh received a $2,500 scholarship, plus a hand-selected mentor from Raytheon Technologies to aid him in his innovation journey.
The Henry Ford's Invention Convention gives more than enough reason for hope during these challenging times. This year, over 120,000 K-12 students designed and pitched their creative solutions to the problems of the world, from potato-based plastic bags and energy-generating keyboards to more breathable face masks. These students were tasked with a single request: find a problem theycare about and try to solve it.
With lockdowns and travel restrictions inhibiting many educational programs, The Henry Ford digitized Invention Convention within weeks. This quick pivot allowed The Henry Ford’s 20 affiliates to operate their programs and events despite the difficult circumstances. Among these affiliates was the Michigan Invention Convention, which had its most participants ever despite being held virtually. The Henry Ford similarly digitized its U.S. Nationals event, which culminated in an online award ceremony hosted by CBS science correspondent Alie Ward.
The award ceremony featured a number of keynote speakers and presenters, including several former astronauts, the director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, key executives including the CEO of Stanley Black & Decker and more than 80 award-winning young inventors. Nearly a dozen full patent applications were awarded to students.
The impact of the U.S. Nationals event has been astounding. As of mid-August, the award ceremony video had received over 40,000 views across its channels, with viewership of Invention Convention via news media with 500 million impressions this year. Most importantly, The Henry Ford continues to improve the accessibility and inclusion of the program. This year, over 54% of the inventors were female, and 55% of the winners self-identified as students of color.
The Henry Ford is grateful to its many partners and sponsors who continue to support and help build this vital program of innovation, invention and creative thinking — in particular, Raytheon Technologies, a founding sponsor of Invention Convention Worldwide and the presenting sponsor of U.S. Nationals 2020. Learn more about The Henry Ford's Invention Convention program at inventionconvention.org.
If you are interested in supporting this inspiring program or participating as a judge in 2021, keep an eye on The Henry Ford’s Invention Convention web page for updates in Spring of 2021.
On May 14, The Henry Ford recognized the 2020 winners of Invention Convention Michigan through a special awards ceremony hosted on our YouTube and Facebook channels. More than 2,600 students across the state participated in events leading up to the state final this year, with 155 students competing in the final competition.
Thank you to staff who participated in judging this year, our sponsors, and congratulations to the students listed below who have been invited to compete at Invention Convention U.S. Nationals.
Learn more about the winning inventions from the inventors themselves below along with our virtual awards ceremony.
Grades 3-5 Third Place: Falcon Saiabhiram Akkaraju, Grade 5, Novi Meadows Elementary, Novi Falcon (Flying Automated Litter Controller) is a Litter picking drone.
Second Place: Dispens-a-Ramp Diya Ural, Grade 4, Village Oaks Elementary, Novi
The Dispens-a-Ramp is an invention to help big dogs that are having a hard time getting into cars (especially, SUVs). Dispens-a-Ramp is a bi-foldable ramp with a built-in automatic treat dispenser. When the dog puts its paw on the button, it triggers the treat dispenser to dispense the treat into the bowl. Each Dispens-a-Ramp could have few dispensing units.This encourages the dog to move further onto the ramp and finally, into the car.
The main purpose of the invention is for the dogs to have a positive experience getting into the car. Hence, my motto is "One step to a Dog's Happy Journey".
First Place: Filtere – Water Filtration System John Tewolde, Grade 5, Brendel Elementary, Grand Blanc
Filtere is a water filter that can be used to filter contaminated water. It uses three types of water filtration methods - Granular Activated Carbon (GAC), Ion Exchange, and UV light. This germ-killing combination gets all 30 of the particles that could end up in water. It can be used in any container of water, and cleans ALL germs within 30 seconds. Water contamination is a large problem in the world that affects more than two billion people. Filtere is an affordable and effective solution to this problem.
Grades 6-8 Third Place: Piezo Power Samvith Mahesh, Grade 6, Novi Meadows Elementary, Novi
When pressure is applied to some special crystal structure deforms, atoms get pushed around, hence generating electricity and is known as Piezo electric affect. Our project is designing products that uses this science as an energy producer using energy humans exert while doing daily activities.
Second Place: Porch Pirate Preventer (P3) Akhilesh Shenoy and David Tauro, Grade 6, Novi Meadows Elementary, Novi
Did you know that over 1.7 million packages are stolen daily around the world? Our incredible Porch Pirate Preventer (P3) stops package theft of porch deliveries in a very cost-effective way.
Our device, which is made up of a chip, an accelerometer, a Piezo buzzer and a numeric keypad, uses a loud alarm to prevent thieves from taking delivered packages. The chip is programmed using Python to make the accelerometer and Piezo buzzer work with each other.
Once the package is placed on the homeowner's porch, the delivery person uses the keypad on the package to activate P3. He/she then sends a message to the package owner to let them know that the package is delivered and activated. Only the package owner can deactivate P3 using the keypad on the package. If the package is moved or a wrong code is entered, a loud alarm is set off.
Just as bottle returns work in many states, P3 is fully refundable for the package owner when returned to participating merchants. The company can then reuse P3 on future deliveries. So it's a win-win all around!
First Place: Reinnervate Suhani Dalela, Grade 8, Independent Inventor, Saline
Reinnervate is an alternative medicine based instant fatigue reduction device. Using World Health Organization's standardized meridian points, this device provides instant energy to the user without disrupting the activity they are doing.
Grade 9-12 Third Place and Howard & Howard Patent Award: EcoRinse Elizabeth Li, Grade 12, Huron High School, Ann Arbor
EcoRinse is a robust, redesigned showering system that aims to reduce water waste in the shower. It redirects cold water that sits in pipes into the water heating system so that the cold water can be reused as hot shower water instead of flowing down the drain while the user waits for water to heat up in the shower.
Second Place: Perceive the Puzzle Jayden Smith and Siena Smith, Grade 12, Huron High School, Ann Arbor
Perceive the Puzzle is a portable EEG for autistic individuals. The device allows caregivers to monitor brain activity, helping them to address episodes of stress quickly and easily. This is something that you can't find anywhere on the market and hits close to home for us. Our project was inspired by our Uncle Mark who was diagnosed with autism with he was four so we wanted to make something that would help him!
Grand Prize and First Place: AstroTrack: An Efficient Approach to Minor Planet Recovery, Detection, and Characterization Anirudh Cowlagi, Grade 12, Huron High School, Ann Arbor
Advances in the field of planetary science, particularly concerning our own solar system, have been dramatic over the last few decades. These advancements owe largely to developments in observing technology and more comprehensive astronomical surveys across the world. However, with these copious amounts of new data comes a need for more effective methods of analysis. This project offers a solution to the issue by presenting an efficient Python-based approach to aid with the detection, recovery, and characterization of minor planets in the solar system (asteroids, trans-neptunian objects, Kuiper Belt objects, etc.).
Lee and Kendra in partnership with their signed Memoranda of Understanding.
The Henry Ford recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its acquisition of The STEMIE Coalition, an alliance of youth invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship programs committed to teaching K-12 students the innovative mindset. The program has seen considerable success and continues to rapidly expand globally under a new brand, Invention Convention Worldwide. This week, The Henry Ford welcomed its affiliated program leadership from as far away as Singapore and Ukraine and from across the U.S. to collaborate and share best practices to advance youth invention education worldwide.
New to the community, and representing all K-12 students across the Republic of Korea, is the Korea Invention Promotion Association (KIPA), a relative analog to our U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) government agency’s educational and outreach activities. KIPA was established in 1994 to promote intellectual property rights – patents, trademarks, copyrights, and more – and expand patent management support for companies across South Korea.
Today, KIPA is overseeing an audacious goal -- to train all students in Korea in the process of invention. The Republic of Korea is the first country in the world to legislate that all students in grades 4-12 receive annual training in the invention process. KIPA has created a wealth of content to support teachers across Korea, including classroom materials, training for teachers, and national events designed to excite, guide, and celebrate young inventors.
The Henry Ford shares this mission – that within every child exists the potential to change the world. Under The Innovation Project and the Invention Convention Worldwide initiative, The Henry Ford is seeking to convene and collaborate with the world’s leading changemakers around invention education, and work to develop an innovative mindset in students everywhere.
Lee and Kendra enjoy an authentic Model-T ride through The Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village.
KIPA and The Henry Ford Invention Convention Worldwide will collaborate to expand invention education across Korea, the U.S., and worldwide, working with the World IP Organization (WIPO). KIPA and The Henry Ford will take advantage of The Henry Ford’s extensive collection of stories and artifacts across 300 years of American Innovation – not to mention its curated lesson plans, teacher training, and digital media. They will similarly leverage KIPA’s own deep educator written, audio, video, and software content and tools in invention learning. Together, KIPA and The Henry Ford will build new and expanded pathways for young inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs to build life-long skills and innovative mindsets.
Carol Kendra, Vice President of The Henry Ford, welcomed Du Seong Lee, Vice President of KIPA, along with Jimmy Han, Director and Danny Yoo, Section Manager, to The Henry Ford for a formal signing ceremony of the new partnership. Set against the backdrop of the world’s first research and development laboratory, the original renowned Menlo Labs of Thomas Edison, Lee and Kendra exchanged signatures, memoranda of understanding, and gifts to celebrate the occasion. The signing was held on the second floor of Edison’s lab where Edison first successfully created his first working light bulb, lighting up the world.
Lee and his staff joined American school children in a viewing a demonstration of one of the original first 200 working phonograph devices. As Global Director of the Invention Convention Worldwide program, I presented Lee with an actual recording from the historic phonograph.
The Henry Ford and KIPA will begin collaborations and planning starting in October in Korea on joint efforts. The Henry Ford’s President and CEO Patricia Mooradian received the Korean delegation in her offices and invited KIPA to discuss how we might include young Korean inventors at our Invention Convention showcases and competitions globally, and to work together to cultivate each child’s skill sets to create solutions to our world’s most pressing problems. Among the potential areas for collaboration include application of The Henry Ford’s digital assets, including clips from its award-winning InnovationNation and Did I Mention Invention? television shows and digital artifact cards from its 26 million piece collection, to KIPA's extensive content for educators, and creating new artificial reality and gaming approaches to invention education.
The Henry Ford’s Invention Convention Worldwide initiative is part of its Innovation Learning suite of learning resources, and today impacts more than 120,000 students across its affiliated network of partners. Danny Briere is former Chief Entrepreneur Officer and Global Director, Invention Convention Worldwide, at The Henry Ford.
Congratulations to all winners from the 2019 Invention Convention U.S. Nationals, presented by United Technologies! See the award ceremony for yourself above, and then read our complete list of winners here.
In a typical day at The Henry Ford I find myself answering patron questions or assisting with research. Then, there’s the not-so-typical day when I’m coordinating and work on the Special Access team.
July 13, 2015, was one of those not-so-typical days. I found myself face to face with someone people may call one of the most fascinating inventors in history, Nikola Tesla. You might be asking, how does one find herself in this position? Well, let me show you.
The Special Access Program is designed to allow for closer examination of artifacts in storage, access to artifacts beyond visitor barriers, or filming behind the scenes at The Henry Ford. It allows patrons (film crews, enthusiasts, model makers, etc.) access to our collections that can’t be accommodated in the usual ways such as viewing exhibits and items on display, searching collections online, or viewing material in the public reading room.
In fact, the artifacts from the collection are some of the biggest stars of our television show, The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, so the Special Access team is very busy during filming. The first episode of season 2 – filmed in part on this day in July – features the work of Nikola Tesla. I brought several objects to “center stage” for the shoot, including the death mask of Nikola Tesla, shown above. I worked with our Exhibits team to move the electroplated copper mask and its beautifully designed pedestal (which together weigh more than 50 pounds!) from a case in the Made in America exhibition to a sturdy table. It joined several objects that I had moved temporarily from collections storage to the museum for filming:
Though the Wright Brothers first successfully flew their heavier-than-air flyer in 1903, it wasn’t until August 8, 1908, that Wilbur Wright offered the first official public demonstration of their creation. In a series of flights between August and the end of the year, Wright quashed many skeptics by showing the flyer’s maneuverability. Images of those flights remain today in the archives of The Henry Ford in a series of glass plate negatives in the Bollée Collection, named after Leon Bollée, a French automaker and aviation enthusiast. We’ve just digitized all of these glass plate negatives, including documentary images of the flyer before, during, and after these flights, as well as many images covering the personal and business interests of Leon Bollée. The fascinating image shown here depicts the Wright Flyer being transported along a narrow road in France—an endeavor that must have had its challenges. View over 150 more newly-digitized Bollée images by visiting our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.