History of Wisconsin innovation offers glimpse into the future

It was a bit like peering inside a time capsule. On the display tables in front of me stood examples of innovation that have defined Wisconsin industry and technology over time. They also spoke quietly to its future.

There was a century-old control panel from a building-wide temperature regulation system manufactured by the “Johnson Service Co.” of Milwaukee, now Johnson Controls Inc., one of Wisconsin’s most iconic companies.

The first adjustable-volume micropipette, which revolutionized the process of measuring and transferring biological fluids, was nearby. When paired with a “respirometer,” which measured small amounts of oxygen, the devices sped research in molecular biology in the mid-20th century. Both were developed by Gilson Medical Electronics of Middleton, founded by UW-Madison scientist Warren Gilson.

A bottle of “Dairyland Rat and Mouse Killer” from the 1950s rested on the table, a reminder of the research done by Karl Paul Link, the UW-Madison professor who discovered that a substance to kill rodents could also be refined to prevent life-threatening blood clots and strokes in people.

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The display at this month’s Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium also included: a “sonic sifter” from Milwaukee’s Allen-Bradley Co. used for, among many other things, analyzing moon dust; the first high-fidelity stereophones from Milwaukee’s Koss Electronics Inc.; an electric mixer developed by Racine’s Chester Beach (think Hamilton Beach) using a fractional horsepower motor that powered the small appliance industry; and more.

They’re representative of a much larger Wisconsin Historical Society collection that will emerge from controlled storage to public display as a “history center” is built on Madison’s Capitol Square. The building will rise partly on the site of the current museum and include two adjacent properties. Current exhibition space will double when it opens in 2024; about $100 million has been secured and at least $20 million more is needed.

Historical Society director Christian Overland is planning an “innovation experience area” in the new building, which stems from his background as a technology historian and former executive vice president of The Henry Ford, a national landmark destination of five attractions in Dearborn, Mich.

Like most museums, the new history center will rotate its collections, which means different tech-related artifacts may be on display at different times. There are literally hundreds of them, many of which are being stored until the building is complete.

It’s less about individual items, however, than celebrating Wisconsin’s tech and business legacy built by real people with real names.

In addition to people such as Whitewater’s Warren S. Johnson, Gilson, Link, John Koss, Stanton Allen and Lynde Bradley (the company is today’s Rockwell Automation) and Beach, there are many others whose names are reminders of an earlier entrepreneurial age.

William Harley and three Davidsons — Arthur, Walter and William — built a decent little motorcycle business. Seymour Cray of Chippewa Falls has been called “the Thomas Edison of the super-computing industry” for his groundbreaking work. Arthur Oliver Smith developed the first steel automobile frame. John Michael Kohler manufactured the first enameled, cast-iron plumbing fixtures. Ole Evinrude designed the first commercially successful outboard gasoline engine for boats.

The latest generation of innovators and entrepreneurs is also leaving a mark in Wisconsin and well beyond. They include people such as:

  • Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply in Beloit, who Forbes declared to be “the most successful female entrepreneur in American history.”
  • Epic’s Judy Faulkner, a dominating pioneer in electronic health records. The Historical Society has the computer she used to write Epic’s first lines of code
  • Developmental biologist James Thomson, a world-renowned stem-cell researcher
  • Bill Linton, the founder of Promega, one of Wisconsin’s earliest successful biotech companies.
  • Thomas “Rock” Mackie and Paul Reckwerdt, developers of the image-guided radiation therapy process known as “tomotherapy”
  • Craig Culver, whose family restaurants redefined how hamburgers should taste
  • Richard Burke and Bevel Hogg of Trek Bicycles, founders of the Waterloo company that makes some of the world’s most popular bikes
  • Robert D. Kern, a mechanical engineer who in the mid-1950s started a company in a garage making portable backup power generators. That homegrown firm became Generac, the global leader. Kern died in November at 96.

Those and many more contemporary names mark a continuation of an entrepreneurial spirit in Wisconsin that was born before statehood. Maybe the Historical Society could use an even bigger museum.

Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Email: [email protected]

Current exhibition space will double when the Wisconsin Historical Society’s new building opens in 2024; about $100 million has been secured and at least $20 million more is needed.