Throughout Michigan’s storied economic history, there have been a number of innovators whose unique application of skills, knowledge and creativity changed the world forever. Here are a few of the most notable.
Melville and Anna Bissell
In 1876, Melville R. Bissell and his wife, Anna, were running a small crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sick of constantly cleaning sawdust off the shop’s carpet, Melville invented and patented a one-of-a-kind sweeper. People inquired about purchasing the sweeper, and a new business was born. When Melville passed away in 1889, Anna took over, making her the first female CEO in America. Today, the company that Melville and Anna built is still innovating in Walker, Michigan. Bissell remains family-owned, and is the top manufacturer of floor care products in North America.
Herbert “Henry” Dow
The son of an inventor, it is perhaps no surprise that there was a new idea every morning from Herbert Henry Dow, founder of Dow Chemical Company, according to the company’s first patent department head. Those ideas, would eventually lead him to more than 90 patents. Henry’s inventions included steam and internal combustion engines, automatic furnace controls, and water seals, but most were chemical in nature. Now considered one of the creators of the modern American chemical industry, he first made his mark in the 1890s, by inventing an entirely new method of extracting bromine from the prehistoric brine trapped underground in Midland, Michigan. Known for constantly adapting and persevering, he suffered two failed company’s before launching Dow Chemical in 1897. Today, Dow, which is still headquartered in Midland, is the largest chemical company in the world.
Born in Wayne County, Michigan, Henry Ford showed an early interest in mechanics. He constructed his first steam engine at the tender age of fifteen. He would gone on to hold many patents on automotive mechanisms, but is best remembered for founding the Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan. By employing a conveyor belt, he devised the factory assembly approach to production. This concept revolutionized the auto industry by greatly reducing the time required to assemble a car. He offered his workers an unprecedented high wage of $5 a day, helping to broaden the middle class in America. He also took significant steps to preserve American history by purchasing and relocating iconic buildings and innovations to Dearborn for the founding of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, collectively known today as The Henry Ford.
Detroit-born Barry Gordy put Americans on dance floors like his hometown had put them on wheels decades before. After getting a minuscule check from a record company for a song he wrote, Barry decided to launch his own record label instead. In 1959, with an $800 loan from his family, he set out to apply some of the principles he had learned from working in an auto plant to the production of records and the creation of artists. He discovered and nurtured a deep pool of talent, building a music empire that would practically lead to its own genre: the “Motown sound.” His amazing array of artists included: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Mary Wells, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, the Contours, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5.
Mabel White Holmes
It’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t buy a ready-to-bake box of biscuits, brownies, or cake, but that option might not exist without Mabel White Holmes, who created the first one. The idea came to her after her sons came home for lunch one day with a friend from school. The boy’s widowed father had packed his lunch with a very flat biscuit, and Mabel realized there was a need for families like his to be able to quickly and simply bake something appetizing. She wanted her mix to include as many necessary ingredients in the package as possible, excluding only perishables like eggs and milk. It was also to be versatile so the baker could use the same package to make various recipes. Her family had owned the Chelsea Milling Company since its inception in the late 1880s, and Jiffy Biscuit Mix was introduced in 1930. It was America’s first prepared baking mix. Mabel became president of the company after her husband’s death six years later. It remain’s the marquis business in the town of Chelsea, and is still family-owned and operated.
Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson
Ishpeming native, Kelly Johnson, won a prize for his first aircraft design at just thirteen years old. He later studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, earning a B.S. in 1932 and an M.S. in 1933. Kelly helped lead the team that developed the P-38 Lightning fighter jet. Eventually, almost 10,000 of these fighters were built, playing a significant role in World War II. By 1943, the American military expressed serious concerns about Germany’s development of high performance jet fighters. In response, Kelly proposed developing a U.S. jet airplane in an astonishing six months. His P-80 Shooting Star was completed on time and became America’s first operational jet fighter. In 1955, at the request of the C.I.A., he initiated construction of the airbase that would become later known as Area 51. The project provided a secret location for flight testing the Lockheed U-2. President Johnson honored Kelly with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Donald B. Keck
Long distance phone calls, hi-def television, and even the Internet, might not have been possible without the work of Lansing native, Donald B. Keck. After earning three degrees, including a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, Donald went to work for Corning Laboratories. In collaboration with two colleagues, he worked to make Alexander Graham Bell’s idea of transmitting voice signals along beams of light a reality. Eventually they discovered that they could transmit sound in the form of light along a fiber of silica glass, which heralded the beginning of the fiber optic revolution. For his discovery of low-loss optical fiber in particular, Donald was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1993, after which he served as President of the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation.
John H. and W.K. Kellogg
The Kellogg brothers developed a method of producing crunchy, flavorful flakes of processed grain that proved a popular breakfast food among the patients at Dr. John H. Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium. They founded the Sanitas Food Company in 1900 to sell those corn flakes, which were the first dry, flaked breakfast cereal. The product became the most popular dry breakfast cereal in the world, transforming the typical American breakfast. W.K. Kellogg bought out his brother and in 1906 established the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flakes Company. Through innovative advertising techniques and improvements in the quality of the cereals, the company prospered. Battle Creek experienced its own “gold rush” during the time with more than thirty cereal companies, including Post, earning its nickname as “Cereal City.” Today, the company is better known simply as Kellogg’s. It is still headquartered in Battle Creek and is now a global company worth billions. In 1934, W.K. Kellogg donated more than $66 million in company stock to start a foundation geared primarily toward serving children. The Kellogg Foundation is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world.
The son of escaped slaves, Elijah McCoy grew up in Ypsilanti, Michigan. When he was fifteen, his parents sent him to school in Scotland, where he studied mechanical engineering. Unable to find engineering work upon his return, he went to work for the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman. His duties included lubricating engine parts. He received his first patent for an automatic lubricating device in 1872. Previously, engines had to be stopped before necessary lubrication could be applied. McCoy’s invention allowed engines to be lubricated while they ran, saving precious time and money. He continued to make improvements and his reputation for quality spread. Purchasers became wary of buying cheap substitutes, and began to ask for “the real McCoy,” a phrase that would become famous in and of itself. Elijah obtained 57 patents before his death in 1929 at the age of 80.
Hendrik and Frederik Meijer
Reinventing himself, barber Hendrik Meijer opened his first grocery store during the Great Depression in Greenville, Michigan. Among his first employees was his fourteen year old son, Frederik, who, upon his father’s death, would become chairman of the company. By the 1960s the company had over two dozen stores in West Michigan. It would then transform the industry. In 1962, Meijer opened a 180,000 sq. ft. store in Grand Rapids. The new concept combined grocery and department store shopping for the first time. This one-stop-shop concept would later be imitated by national chains like Walmart and Target. Mejier now consists of well over two hundred locations throughout the Midwest, and has stayed privately-owned. The Meijer family has contributed much philanthropically to its community, perhaps most notably with the creation of the Fredrik Mejier Gardens and Sculptor Park in Grand Rapids.
Sabina “Bina” West Miller
There once was a time in America when women couldn’t vote, own a home, or even purchase life insurance. Bina Miller, of Capac, set out to change that, particularly the issue of life insurance. The school teacher had seen a family torn apart by the death of the mother. Life insurance would have helped them survive in the event of the father’s passing, but when the mother died, there were no benefits so the father could not afford to hire anyone to care for his children. They were removed, placed into separate foster homes, and forced to work. In the late 1800s average women were considered uninsurable because of their high mortality rate in pregnancy and childbirth, but that was about to change. In June 1891, Bina and her aunt Nellie attended a picnic held by the fraternal society Knights of the Maccabees in Port Huron, Michigan. The society offered life and disability insurance to its members, who were all male. An inspiring speech gave Bina the idea to extend those advantages to women. She borrowed $500, founded one of the first organizations to offer life insurance to women, and heavily promoted the group. Within a decade membership grew to 100,000 women. Today, the company Bina founded is the Woman’s Life Insurance Society, based in Port Huron, Michigan.
John T. Parsons
Born in Detroit, John T. Parsons received the first honorary Doctor of Engineering ever awarded to a manufacturing engineer by the University of Michigan. Credited with several ingenious contributions throughout his illustrious career, John’s most significant was probably the invention of numerical control. It consisted of the complex formula used in structural and aerodynamic design of helicopter rotor blades and other structures. He also pioneered adhesive bonding in metal aircraft structure, then built the first all-composite airplane. He produced the gigantic fuel lines for the Saturn booster that started the U.S. astronauts toward the moon, and was among the first to apply computers to aircraft design, manufacturing, and real-time management reporting. John was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1993.
Born May 11th, 1875 somewhere near Arcadia, Michigan, Harriet Quimby a modern woman in a not-so modern age. At a time when other young ladies were donning petticoats and corsets, Harriet was climbing into a cockpit, decked out in a satin flying suit. She started out as a journalist. In 1906, Harriet’s 100-mile-an-hour jaunt in a race car sparked an abiding love for the speed and freedom that automobiles represented. Similarly, after writing a piece on a Japanese aeronaut, she became a fixture at airfields where she eventually met aviator, John Moisant, who had a flying school. She became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, license #37 on August 1st, 1911. She collected an impressive sum of $1500 for a 7-minute flight, making her the first woman to fly at night. In another first, on April 16, 1912, Harriet became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel. Her accomplishment received little media attention, however, as the Titanic had perished the day before, consuming the public’s attention and the news cycle. In 2004, Harriet Quimby was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Born and raised in Northern Michigan, Claude Shannon was a mathematical genius who earned his B.S. degree from the University of Michigan in 1936. He produced one of the great conceptual breakthroughs of his generation with the publication of A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The paper laid the foundation of information theory, suggesting that binary digits which he first called bits, could carry information in a digital form. This radical idea led directly to the wide range of digital inventions so common today, from cell phones and CDs to cameras and computers. By showing how information could be manipulated in a precise, mathematical way, he gave engineers what experts have called a blueprint for the digital age.
John C. Sheehan
Born in Battle Creek, Michigan, John C. Sheehan graduated from Battle Creek College, then received his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan. At the beginning of World War II, Sheehan and W.E. Bachmann of the University of Michigan devised a new and practical method of manufacturing the military high explosive RDX, which replaced TNT as the basic explosive for rocket, bomb, and torpedo warheads. His work would then lead him into a lifesaving direction. Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin in bread mold was a tremendous breakthrough for medical science, but harvesting the antibiotic took months to generate a small amount. During World War II, as demand for penicillin rose, researchers worked feverishly to synthesize the penicillin molecule. In March of 1957, John announced the first rational total synthesis of natural penicillin. By the next year, he reported a general total synthesis of penicillin, enabling supply to finally meet demand.
Before he was a doctor, Homer Stryker was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the Keweenaw Bay. He then went off to fight in World War I, and upon his return decided to study medicine. Homer was eventually admitted to the University of Michigan. After graduating and interning at the university hospital, he headed to Kalamazoo to open a practice as the only orthopedic surgeon in the area. Over time, found that certain medical products were not meeting his patients’ needs, so he invented new ones. As interest in these products grew, the doctor started a company in 1941 to produce them. Today, Kalamazoo-based Stryker Corporation, is one of the world’s leading medical technology companies.
William E. Upjohn
William E. Upjohn transformed the medical industry by creating the first dissolvable pill and the means for its mass production in back in 1884. Born in Richland, Michigan, William grew up when medicines were commonly administered in powdered form. Once pills were created, they were not practical or effective since the outer shell was hard and did not allow the stomach to digest them properly. By 1880, William began developing a friable pill, which is a pill the thumb could crush, that did not harden and dissolved easily in the stomach. In 1884 he invented a machine to mass-produce these pills with a regulated dosage. In 1886, the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company was established, producing these new pills on a massive scale. The company, later known as The Upjohn Company, would manufacture 186 different medications in pill form over the next century. After several mergers it has been absorbed by Pfizer, but a strong employment presence remains in Kalamazoo generations later.