North Dakota is the birthplace for innovative inventions
From film cameras to Cream of Wheat, some of the world's most popular products got their start in the Peace Garden State
FARGO — Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.
The aphorism encapsulates a truth that has spurred legions of inventors, North Dakotans among them.
Yes, the Peace Garden State is known for its wheat, corn and soybean fields, cattle ranches and immense oil reserves. But it’s also a place of fertile imagination and an inventive nature that has turned acorns of ideas into mighty marketing oaks.
Whether it's fueling up for the day, digging into some serious work, or cleaning up after, North Dakotans from the Badlands to the west side of the Red River of the North have had a hand in some of America’s most popular and enduring products.
While this is not a comprehensive list, here are a few of those inventions and marketing triumphs.
Mr. Bubble has been bub bub bubbling its way to keeping kids clean since 1961.
Mr. Bubble is the brainchild of Harold Schafer , the North Dakota entrepreneur behind the Gold Seal Company, which grew with the successes of Glass Wax and Snowy Bleach.
Schafer wanted to move bubble bath products from fancy department stores to drugstores and grocery stores.
The idea for the name came to Schafer after he heard an ad for a cleaner called Mr. Clean.
Gold Seal’s first shot at making Mr. Bubble was a belly flop. At a list price of 59 cents, a box of the powdered flakes was the equivalent of spending more than $5.50 a box today, and a family budget breaker back then.
With the initial bubble burst, Schafer worked to get the price down to 39 cents, about $3.64 today.
After that, the product cleaned up in the market, with humorous ads featuring bright and colorful cartoon depictions of the Mr. Bubble character.
In August 2011, the state of North Dakota honored the 50th birthday of the popular children's bubble bath, by declaring a "Mr. Bubble Day."
Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, son of Harold Schafer, said during the event that his father liked making bath time fun for his own children with small packets of bath powder to drop into the bath tub for his children.
Mr. Bubble was a natural outgrowth of that.
"He brought a lot of fun and joy into our home with his concept of fun in the tub for his children," Ed Schafer said.
To the soap-prize of no one who enjoys a soap bubble filled bath, Mr. Bubble still sells well around the world.
The Village Company now owns the brand.
Cream of Wheat
One of the hottest breakfast food products way, way back in the day was Cream of Wheat.
The breakfast staple, still on store shelves, was created in 1893 by Scottish-born Tom Amidon, the chief miller for the Diamond Milling Company in Grand Forks.
The flour mill was having a hard time staying afloat during an economic depression dubbed the Panic of 1893.
Amidon proposed to Diamond’s owners — Emery Mapes, George Bull and George Clifford — that the mill package a breakfast porridge that his wife would make for him. It was made from the middlings of wheat, a protein rich part of the wheat kernel not used to make flour.
The mill owners eventually agreed to test the product.
Ten cases of what was dubbed “Cream of Wheat” were sent to the mill’s brokers in New York, along with a regular shipment of flour.
The hot cereal was an instant hot seller.
In short order, the brokers ordered a train car load of Cream of Wheat. Diamond then switched over to making only Cream of Wheat.
Faster than you can say farina, demand grew and Diamond moved its factory operations to Minneapolis and changed the name to The Cream of Wheat Company.
Over the decades, the one flavor — plain — was joined by multiple flavors and quick preparation options. Cream of Wheat was owned by Nabisco from 1961 to 2000. It was then purchased and merged with Kraft Foods. It is now owned by B&G Foods.
The film roll camera
Picture this, the inventor of the firm roll camera was a Dakota Territory resident who filed his first patent for the “roll holding camera” in 1881.
And he did it several years before roll film had been invented.
David Henderson Houston was born in Scotland in 1841, coming to the U.S. that same year with his family, settling in Wisconsin. At age 39, he moved to the Dakota Territory, near Hunter.
Houston wasn’t versed in the technology to make film, but despite that lack of exposure, he could see that it was coming and the potential uses.
George Eastman later created a paper roll film that could be wound around the spool of Houston’s design.
In 1886, Houston applied for another patent (US694919A) with improvements to his original design and licensed it to Eastman, who used the design in his Kodak box camera.
Houston was paid $5,000 for that effort (a lot of money for a 19th century farmer), or more than $145,000 in today’s money. He also received monthly royalties.
Houston continued to focus on developing the camera, creating 21 more patents for cameras or camera parts, including folding, panoramic and magazine-loaded cameras.
The Kodak camera also owes its name to the state. Henderson is credited with coming up with the name by scrambling the first four letters of “Dakota” and adding a K to make Kodak.
Bobcat Skid Steer loaders
Need a lift?
Many a farmer and construction worker has saved some serious sweat, thanks to the Melroe Manufacturing Company, now known as Doosan Bobcat, which invented the modern skid-steer loader.
The Bobcat skid-steer loader traces its origins back to the 1950s, when brothers Louis and Cyril Keller operated Keller Welding and Repair near Rothsay, Minnesota.
In 1956, turkey farmer Eddie Velo told the brothers he needed a machine small enough to maneuver inside a barn, and light enough to operate on its upper level. The brothers developed a small, three-wheeled machine and delivered it to Velo in 1957, later switching to a new transmission.
In 1958, Gwinner, North Dakota-based Melroe bought the rights to the machine and hired the Kellers. The three-wheeled machine was the blueprint for the Melroe M60 loader.
In 1960, Melroe introduced the four-wheeled M400 model, the first true “skid steer loader.”
They redesigned it to make it more reliable, and in 1962 began using “Bobcat” as its trade name with the 440-model loader. From then on, Bobcat clawed its way to the top of the small sized-equipment heap in the heavy construction business.
The company changed hands a couple of times over the years and became the Bobcat Company, before being acquired in 2007 by Doosan Infracore. It is now Doosan Bobcat, based in West Fargo.
In July 2014, the company celebrated the construction of 1 million loaders.
The first automatic clothes dryer owes its invention to J. Ross Moore's aversion to trying to dry damp clothes in North Dakota’s extreme cold and his love for his mother.
According to Forum history columnist, Curt Eriksmoen:
“On a cold, windy, winter day in North Dakota, young James Moore watched his mother struggle to get the laundry hung on the clothesline outside of the family home in Devils Lake. Moore later said, ‘I could not bear to see my mother have to endure this, so I rigged up a gasoline-driven washer and (a) drying room in our home.’ He then began to plan on how to construct ‘a mechanical device which (would) successfully dry clothes.'”
Over 30 years, in his battle against clammy clothes, Moore worked on designs for gas or electric models. He registered a patent for an electrical operated dryer in 1936. In 1938, a drum-type model was built and marketed by Hamilton Manufacturing and sold under the name June Day.
It is now a valued appliance in many American households.
Lenard Milo Mennes came up with the idea for the license plate sticker, and he was proud of it until the day he died — and after it, too.
Mennes worked in the computer department at the North Dakota Department of Motor Vehicles in Bismarck in the 1970s. It was there that he came up with the idea for license plate tags or validation stickers using a sticky film.
He didn’t have a patent and gave the idea to 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) to manufacture.
The stickers quickly stuck around the United States and around the world.
Up until the invention of the stickers, you had to regularly get new license plates.
So, while they can be pricey little devils, depending on how fancy and new your car is, they are a lot more convenient.
Mennes put the whole of the story of his invention in spare language on his grave marker in Bismarck’s Fairview Cemetery.