On April 30, The Henry Ford was thrilled to welcome 150 student inventors from across the state to participate in the state finals of Invention Convention Michigan (ICM), the Michigan affiliate for Invention Convention Worldwide. The event marked the return of an in-person Invention Convention after two years of virtual programming.
Out of 1,290 young inventors who competed in regional STEM competitions across the state of Michigan, 150 were selected to participate in Invention Convention Michigan. / Photo by Purple Frog Photography
The atmosphere was electric as students in grades 3 through 12 presented their original inventions on the floor of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation alongside some of the greatest innovations in American history. The young inventors were buzzing with nervous energy when it came time for judging, but once the pressure was off, they felt a rush of accomplishment and were free to explore the museum, garnering more inspirational energy for the year ahead.
Students pitch their inventions to volunteer judges and share their process, from identifying a problem to developing a solution and designing a prototype. / Photos by Purple Frog Photography
During their lunch break, students were given the opportunity to participate in the Innovation Passport Zone. Traveling from booth to booth around the plaza, inventors learned about some of ICM’s sponsors—including Hagerty, Michigan Soybean Committee, and presenting sponsor Delta Dental of Michigan—and got their “passports stamped” for a chance to win a hefty grand prize of donations offered by the sponsors.
Students interact with representatives from Delta Dental of Michigan, Hagerty, and Michigan Soybean Committee in the Innovation Passport Zone. / Photos by Purple Frog Photography
After the scores had been tabulated, students gathered under the DC3 for the awards ceremony, which began with a special word from the president of The Henry Ford, Patricia Mooradian, and a keynote address by Kwane Watson, inventor of the mobile dental unit.
Students enjoyed interacting with Dazzle, mascot for Delta Dental of Michigan, and The Henry Ford’s own Mike Moseley served as emcee for the event. / Photos by Purple Frog Photography
In all, over $3,500 in cash prizes was awarded to 21 of Michigan’s student inventors. Of these, 13 students were selected to advance to the Raytheon Technologies Invention Convention U.S. Nationals taking place at The Henry Ford June 1-3. To watch a replay of the awards ceremony, click here.
Congratulations to these 21 student inventors, who were recognized with awards during the awards ceremony. / Photo by Purple Frog Photography
A special congratulations goes out to Meera R., who was the Grand Prize Winner, presented by Delta Dental of Michigan, as well as the winner of the Make the World Award, presented by Stanley Black & Decker; the Originality Award, presented by Hagerty; and the Safety Award, presented by Hitachi Astemo. Meera will also be among the 13 inventors selected to represent Michigan at U.S. Nationals in June. / Photo by Purple Frog Photography
It was wonderful to see the museum plaza filled with passionate and joyous students, along with proud families and educators. We look forward to experiencing the thrill of Invention Convention U.S. Nationals in a few weeks and want to congratulate all of our student inventors once again for all of their hard work.
Katie Dallos is Program Coordinator, Invention Convention Michigan, at The Henry Ford and Samantha Rhoads is inHub Marketing Specialist at The Henry Ford.
In 1942, marine engineer Richard James of Philadelphia was working on a sensitive marine meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. His quest? To develop an inner spring that would assure that the device—even if rocked at sea—would give an accurate reading. As James worked, he accidentally knocked one of the rejected prototypes off his desk. The spring hit the ground—then kept spiraling, coil by coil, over the office floor!
This unexpected response intrigued James, who immediately realized that it would make a great toy. For several years he tested various metals, thicknesses, and proportions to come up with the perfect design. His wife, Betty, came up with the perfect name—Slinky. Then James began to sell his Slinkys in local stores. But people weren’t buying.
Clearly customers needed to be shown what a Slinky could do. Richard and Betty James, determined to find success, convinced the Gimbels department store to let them do an in-store demonstration. James had arranged with a local machine ship to manufacture 400 Slinkys—98 coils of high-grade, blue-black Swedish steel piled 2 ½ inches high. Armed with a small set of stairs, the Jameses set out for Gimbels with their Slinkys. As the department store’s curious customers looked on, the Slinky gracefully moved down the stairs. Within minutes, the entire stock of 400 had sold.
Slinkys look simple—but they are actually quite intricate. The original dark steel was later replaced with a silver-colored steel. And, while Slinkys now come in colored plastic, the classic Slinky has remained virtually unchanged.
There’s something rather lifelike about a Slinky, whether walking down some stairs or a sloped board, or shuffling back and forth between one’s hands. And the sound of a Slinky in motion—quite melodious. I have fond childhood memories of a Slinky gliding coil over coil down our stairs—each move punctuated by that distinctive Slinky “snap”—as my siblings and I looked on mesmerized by its flowing passage. How did it know how to do that?
During World War II, the Japanese invasion of the Far East cut off the United States’ rubber supply—rubber badly needed for the mass production of tires and boots. The War Production Board asked General Electric to develop an inexpensive rubber substitute. Chemical engineer James Wright set to work at the company’s New Haven, Connecticut, lab, experimenting with boric acid and silicone oil. Unexpectedly, the two substances gelled. The result was a gooey compound that bounced when tossed on the floor—even higher than rubber did. It stretched farther and retained its properties over a wide temperature range. And oddly enough, it had the ability to lift text or images off the pages of newspapers and comic books. Quite amazing stuff. But the United States War Production Board rejected it as a rubber substitute. And—despite investigation into other possibilities—one seemingly without a practical use.
Silly Putty became a curiosity that made the rounds of New Haven cocktail parties, where it found itself an amusing “guest.” Ruth Fallgatter, who owned a toy store, and Peter Hodgson, her advertising consultant, took notice. Soon, the putty appeared in the store’s holiday catalog as a novelty gift for adults called Bouncing Putty. There was no image, only a description of the product. You guessed it. Bouncing Putty was a huge hit among Fallgatter’s customers.
Fallgatter lost interest in continuing to market the product, but Hodgson persevered. He purchased a large batch of the putty from General Electric, hired Yale students to separate it into one-ounce portions, then packaged it in multicolored plastic eggs. Since “bouncing” didn’t cover everything this remarkable putty could do, Hodgson called it Silly Putty.
Silly Putty’s reception at the 1950 New York Toy Fair didn’t go too well. Hodgson managed to get only a few accounts. One of these was Doubleday bookshops—and that proved to be enough. Silly Putty soon got its “big break” when a staff writer for The New Yorker discovered it when he stopped in the chain’s Manhattan store, then mentioned Silly Putty in the magazine’s popular “Talk of the Town” column. A few days later, Hodgson had orders for over 250,000 items. Since then, the contents of hundreds of millions of Silly Putty eggs have been bounced and stretched by kids and adults alike.
Oh—that thing about Silly Putty not having a practical purpose? Apparently, it does for some. People have used it to clean typewriter keys or level the legs of wobbly tables. Silly Putty even orbited the moon in 1968 with the Apollo 8 astronauts, helping to keep their tools fastened down in the weightless environment.
Like other kids, I would grab Silly Putty and the Sunday comics, then lift an image from the page. At first, I pulled carefully to distort the image in interesting ways. By the end of pulling, the image was so distorted that it was no longer recognizable—then every trace magically disappeared as I kneaded the putty. (I hear this no longer works, since the printing process for color comics has changed.) But perhaps my favorite Silly Putty-related activity was bouncing it—Silly Putty had an energetic, almost otherworldly bounce. And I can’t recall childhood memories of Silly Putty without thinking of the time my sister took it to bed with her. For years afterwards, a perfectly oval Silly Putty stain graced the sheets.
You’ve heard of starving artist stories. Well, this is one.
In 1951, Harry and Patricia Kislevitz were experimenting with various materials and mediums—preferably of the least expensive sort. A friend who owned a handbag business gave them a large roll of flexible vinyl that he didn’t want. The Kislevitzes discovered that it stuck really well to the semi-gloss paint on their bathroom walls—then proceeded to cut out basic shapes and arrange them artistically. When guests visited, they found vinyl and scissors lying on the bathroom counter, beckoning them to join in. A good time was had by all as everyone added to or rearranged the giant collage!
The Kislevitzes decided to market their idea. They created vinyl pieces in standard geometric shapes and primary colors. Then they packaged them with a sheet of black laminated paperboard. Colorforms caught on! And they soon came in new sets—pieced, die-cut, and screened to look like characters or everyday objects.
A kid could design dinosaurs, dress ballet dancers, or send vinyl superheroes on adventures. Scenes from favorite movies or TV shows like Mary Poppins or Sesame Street were within two-dimensional reach. The possibilities were rich—and less messy, done without scissors, paste, or paint.
My favorite Colorforms in young childhood? A set where you dressed a character for the weather—similar to the Popeye version above.
When a New Jersey nursery schoolteacher happened to mention that the modeling clay used by her students was too firm for their small fingers, her brother-in-law took note. Joe McVicker, who was working for his father’s Cincinnati soap and cleaning products company, thought he might have an answer. In the mid-1950s, McVicker formulated a putty-like non-toxic substance and sold it as a wallpaper cleaner. Not only could it be easily shaped, but this compound also stayed soft indefinitely if stored in a tightly sealed container.
McVicker double-checked to assure that it was safe, then mailed some off to his sister-in-law’s school. Kids loved the putty—and so did the teachers. He knew he was on to something.
McVicker contacted the Cincinnati Board of Education, who bought the product for all the kindergartens and elementary schools in the district. Next, the putty made its debut at an educational convention, where it was noticed by the wife of a buyer for the Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington, DC. After a successful in-store demo there, major retailers like Macy’s and Marshall Field placed their own orders.
By 1956, this wallpaper-cleaner-turned-kid’s-toy became known as Play-Doh. And the company? The family business transformed from Kutol Chemicals—not very kid-friendly—to Rainbow Crafts.
Play-Doh was originally offered only in white. By its second year on the market, it came in an even softer consistency and three colors: red, yellow, and blue—developed by company chemist Dr. Tien Liu. In the early 1980s, pink, purple, green, and orange made playtime with Play-Doh even more colorful. Day-glo and glitter versions would later follow.
What’s Play-Doh modeling compound made of? Apparently, that formula is a closely guarded secret.
I grew up in the red-yellow-blue era. I loved the way mixing these not-quite-primary colors could create other beautiful Play-Doh hues. The only downside? Once mixed and kneaded, you couldn’t return them back into their primary basics.
Engineers, businesspeople, artists—and NASA scientists. Accidental toy inventions have landed in toy boxes through these “out of the box” thinkers.
NASA rocket scientist? Yes, that would be Lonnie Johnson and his Super Soaker water gun.
Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with!
Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle, and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.
Kids loved it! Within two years, the Super Soaker generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker debuted have debuted since then—delighting millions of kids and adults, too.
Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—establishing his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co., where Johnson develops innovative technology.
From left: Inventors Claire Kinnaman, Anna Gareau, and Cooper Dyson are Team Scandicapped, the winner of the President’s Choice award at the 2019 Invention Convention U.S. Nationals. The team was led by Nancy Ernstes, Cobb County Schools K-12 InVenture, in Georgia. / Photo by Nick Hagen
Invention Convention Worldwide invites students to solve problems and invent through hands-on, real-world, project-based learning activities. In 2019, more than 100,000 K-12 inventors competed at the school level. Winners advanced to state competitions, hoping to be one of the 492 granted access to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation for Invention Convention U.S. Nationals. A trio of young inventors and their invention, Scandicapped, won the competition’s coveted 2019 President’s Choice award from The Henry Ford’s President and CEO Patricia Mooradian.
Scandicapped, invented by fifth-graders Anna Gareau, Claire Kinnaman, and Cooper Dyson, has a simple premise. Using an accessible parking sign fitted with LED lights and RFID technology found in pet microchips, drivers would be discouraged from illegally parking in reserved spaces.
According to the trio, it’s an idea that came to life in their classroom at Cheatham Hill Elementary in Marietta, Georgia. First proposed by Anna, Scandicapped’s inspiration is personal, a problem she identified within her own family, since her sister has hydrocephalus and uses a wheelchair. Her family’s frustration in parking lots is constant, Anna said.
For five months, the three fifth-graders brainstormed after school to define the problem and outline their design solution and concepts—all under their teacher’s guidance. Final iterations of Scandicapped allow a fitted solar-powered sign to read a chip embedded in a driver’s placard or license plate. When the plate’s chip is verified, the parking sign’s LED lights glow green to indicate legal parking. When a car is parked illegally, the sign’s LED lights glow red to alert drivers of their mistake. If ignored, the continued red flashes also alert the public and law enforcement of the infraction.
The team’s research shows those infractions would get noticed. Within just 35 minutes of observing their elementary school’s retrofitted accessible parking signs one school morning, nine violations occurred. “They were mostly younger, teenagers,” said Claire. “They don’t really know how much their actions can affect people.” What’s also interesting about their test, she added, was how half of drivers who did park illegally moved their vehicle when the prototype sign glowed red.
Team Scandicapped followed much of the protocol The Henry Ford has applied to its own innovation learning framework, Model i, when working on their ideation. Model i connects habits of innovators and actions of innovation to provide an interdisciplinary language and approach to learning. Habits such as empathy and collaboration, along with actions such as defining the problem, designing solutions, and optimizing through feedback and iteration, are within the framework. All of these practices and processes were a major reason why the Scandicapped inventors won the competition’s President’s Choice award. “I was shocked and amazed,” said Cooper of the honor.
Leadership at The Henry Ford was equally amazed at the resourcefulness of Team Scandicapped. “The work of Cooper, Claire and Anna so closely embodies the mission of this great institution,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford, “reflecting on the fact that 10 percent of the population is disabled in some way and we have to do what we can to make the world more accessible to everyone.”
Since 2019, the Invention Convention Worldwide program has grown to support 147,000 K-12 student inventors. To ensure the safety of students, their families, and everyone involved, the competition was hosted virtually in 2020 and 2021. After two years, Invention Convention Worldwide is excited to welcome students back to The Henry Ford June 1–3, 2022, for Raytheon Technologies Invention Convention U.S. Nationals 2022. We are looking forward to celebrating the creativity and ingenuity of these students this summer!
Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs, home of Music: Not Impossible. / Photo courtesy Not Impossible Labs
Film producer Mick Ebeling founded Not Impossible Labs to be a tech incubator with the mission of righting wrongs with innovation. Since then, his credo to “create technology for the sake of humanity” has resulted in developments like an invention allowing people who are paralyzed to communicate using only their eye movements and 3D-printed arms for Sudanese children who’ve lost limbs to war. So when Ebeling witnessed a concert for deaf listeners—where the music was turned up loud enough for the crowd to feel the vibrations—around the same time as a friend lost his sense of smell in a skateboarding accident, he had a revelation. “He didn’t fall on his nose—he fell on his head,” Ebeling said. “That means you don’t smell with your nose. You smell with your brain, which means you don’t hear with your ears, you do that with your brain too. So what if we went around and kind of subverted the classic way that people hear and we just took a new pathway to the brain?”
Thus was born the Music: Not Impossible project. Ebeling enlisted Daniel Belquer, a Brazilian music composer and technologist, to be the “mad scientist” shepherding the endeavor. Belquer was obsessed with vibration and tickled by the observation that skin could act as a substitute for the eardrum. “In terms of frequency range, the skin is much more limited than the ears,” said Belquer, “but the skin is better at perceiving texture.”
Belquer and Ebeling worked with engineers at Bresslergroup, Cinco Design, and Avnet, in close collaboration with members of the deaf community, to create the current version of a wearable device consisting of a “vibrotactile” vest, wrist straps, and ankle straps. The harness features 24 actuators linked to different instruments and sounds that distribute vibrations all over the body. The system is totally customizable and could, for example, have the drums vibrate the ankles, guitars stimulate the wrists, basslines rumble along the base of the spine, vocals tickle the chest, and so on.
Mick Ebeling and Daniel Belquer worked with leading engineers and members of the deaf community to create the current version of their wearable device, which consists of a “vibrotactile” vest, wrist straps, and ankle straps. / Photos by Cinco Design
“What we’re doing is transforming the audio into small packets of information that convey frequency amplitude in the range that our device can recognize,” Belquer said. “And then we send this through the air to the technology of the device. The wearables receive that information and drive the actuators across the skin, so you get a haptic [a term describing the perception of objects by touch] translation of the sound as it was in its source.”
As the team tested prototypes and held demo events, they also discovered the device has benefits for hearing listeners as well as deaf ones. “We can totally provide an experience that is both auditory and haptic,” said Belquer. “So with the vibration and the music, you hear it and you feel it and you get gestalt. This combined experience is more powerful than the individual parts. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
Photo courtesy Not Impossible Labs
The project won silver in the Social Impact Design category at the 2020 Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA)International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), which are hosted at The Henry Ford. Here’s what Marc Greuther, vice president at The Henry Ford and an IDEA juror, had to say about the project: “I like to think of design as an essentially friction-reducing discipline, reducing chafing in the functional, aesthetic, or durability realms—of design building bridges, shortening the route between user and a known destination promised by a tool’s outcome, whether it’s a really good cup of coffee, a comfortable office chair, or an intuitive e-commerce interface. Music: Not Impossible grabbed my attention for going an order of magnitude further—for bridging unconnectable worlds, making sound and music accessible to the deaf. In his design checklist, Bill Stumpf said good design should ‘advance the arts of living and working.’ Music: Not Impossible fulfills that goal by creating an opening into a vast landscape—not by reducing friction but by removing a wall.”
“In the beginning, people would say this might be something like Morse code or Braille, that you have to go through an educational process in order to understand,” said Belquer. “But as an artist, I was always against a learning curve. You might not know or like a specific kind of music or style, but you can relate to what the emotional message of the content is. You don’t need to be trained in order to have the experience and be impacted by it.”
Photo courtesy Not Impossible Labs
What may be most remarkable about the project is that it creates a shared experience among people who might not have had one otherwise. From what the Music: Not Impossible team has witnessed so far, wearing the device can be just as intense and euphoric for folks who can hear as those who can’t. “We’ve had maybe 3,000 demo participants at this point,” said Belquer, “and there’s this face we always see: Their eyes open wide and their mouth and jaw drops as they have this ‘wow!’ moment.”
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker. / Photo by Thomas S. England/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Sometimes serious work leads to serious play—with seriously successful results. Did you know that the Super Soaker® water gun was an accidental invention by NASA rocket scientist Lonnie Johnson?
Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure, instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with.
Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker® to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.
Within two years, the Super Soaker® generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker® debuted during the following years. By 2016, Super Soaker sales were approximately $1 billion.
Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—to establish his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co. Today, Johnson has more than 100 patents and is currently developing innovative technology to efficiently convert solar energy into electricity with world-changing results.
Johnson’s Super Soaker®, familiar to millions of kids, can inspire new generations of inventors and entrepreneurs. The message? Creative play can lead to great achievements.
One of those students was Emma Kaipainen, an 11th grader from Michigan. Emma created the Walking Shipping Container Home and won the Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Award presented by the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation. Emma wanted to solve the problem of homes being destroyed by receding shorelines. Her invention is a house comprised of shipping containers, which uses electric rod actuators to power “legs” which allow the house to “walk” away from the shoreline.
The team of Nicolette Buonora and Lauren Strechay, two 9th graders from Massachusetts, were also focused on sustainability. Nicolette and Lauren created the Battery Swap and won the Most Energy Sustainable Award presented by the Avangrid Foundation. Battery Swap is a flashlight with a unique design—it has an extra switch that can divert power between two battery packs. This invention, designed with police officers in mind, solves the problem of a flashlight unexpectedly running out of power. With the Battery Swap, when the flashlight turns off, the user is able to switch to the back-up battery.
Thanks to The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and the Avangrid Foundation for funding these awards and the curriculum enhancements which helped students unlock their full invention potential!
To learn more about these inventions and our other award winners, check out the full awards ceremony below.
A wooden case encloses the working parts of the cotton gin model shown above, which is currently on display in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. When you turn the handle, a group of circular saw blades rotate, removing cotton seed from cotton fiber. To see that process, you’d have to dismantle the box and look inside. Such exploration helps us see how the machine functions. But much more about this cotton gin model remains hidden from view.
This gin helps us learn about one early inventor, Henry Ogden Holmes. He lived in South Carolina and worked as a blacksmith and mechanic on a plantation. In 1787, Holmes applied for a patent caveat—a document that protected his ownership of this invention. The U.S. Patent Office did not exist at that time, but President Washington signed the caveat on March 24, 1789, allowing Holmes’ ownership of his invention for five years.
You may wonder: Didn’t Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin? Whitney received his first cotton gin patent on March 14, 1794, days before Holmes’ caveat expired. Whitney’s gin used wire teeth on rollers to tear the fibers from the cotton seeds, though he adopted saw teeth in later patents. This paved the way for numerous lawsuits about who had the right to claim the cotton gin as an invention.
This 1853 engraving, "The Levee at New Orleans," gives a sense of scale for cotton production in the American South in the mid-19th century. / THF204264
School children learn about Eli Whitney, but not about “Hogden” Holmes. Nor do they always learn about the negative consequences of the invention. Speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton made it possible for growers to plant more cotton to meet demand from an expanding textile industry. To raise more cotton, they needed more land and labor—and this led to removal of Indian nations from, and expansion of enslavement into, the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s.
This stereograph depicts people picking cotton while a man on horseback oversees the work. This juxtaposition reinforced associations between African Americans and enslavement, long after the Civil War. / THF278808
The history of the cotton gin has a long-standing and seemingly straightforward narrative based in problem solving and opportunity. But, just as technologies can have unintended consequences, so can stories conceal or stray.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
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.