Whether it's water skis or canned meat, Minnesota has a rich history of invention.
Science, medicine, modern cuisine — Minnesota companies have made huge contributions to American culture and technology. (Without us, your toast might be perpetually burnt. And there would be significantly fewer zebra-striped pants in the world.)
These inventions have come from all over, from dreamers in their basements to large corporations with research labs. And they're not always what you might expect: General Mills, best known for breakfast cereal, once developed a deep-sea submersible that surveyed the wreck of the Titanic.
To celebrate Minnesota's many influential inventions, we devised a bracket: Which invention should be on top? (Consider this a mixtape of Minnesota inventions. There are dozens more than what's below: masking tape, Milky Ways, early model pacemakers. The list goes on.)
And now, after thousands of votes, only one is left standing.
It's "La La Land."
Oops, sorry — we meant the Post-it Note. The brightly colored office staple flew past the flight data recorder to rule them all as Minnesota's favorite invention. It wasn't even close.
Minn-vention Madness winner
Spencer Silver didn't intend to invent the Post-it Note.
In the 1960s, the 3M chemist was tasked with creating "bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives." What he developed instead an adhesive that was sticky — but also removable. Not exactly the "tough" product the company was looking for.
His invention went unused for years, until a coworker, Art Fry, asked Silver for help. Fry sang in his church choir and needed a way to bookmark the hymnal without permanently marking the pages.
Together they developed a sticky but removable bookmark. When they found themselves writing on those bookmarks and using them to leave notes around the office, they knew they had something more than they'd intended.
In 1980, 12 years after Silver's accidental discovery, Twin Cities-based 3M put Post-it Notes on the market. They were a sensation. Today, they're available in more than 150 countries, according to the company. And that signature yellow color? That was another happy accident: Yellow was the only color paper available in the lab.
A University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor named James "Crash" Ryan developed the first flight recorder, commonly called the "black box," a device that is now a mandatory part of all commercial aircraft.
Ryan was working in partnership with General Mills at the time, and he filed a patent in 1953 for the Flight Recorder. The patent highlighted the recorder's ability to "withstand destruction by fire and impact in the majority of aircraft crashes."
Ryan also received a patent in 1963 for his Safety Seat Belt design. Legend has it he earned the nickname "Crash" because he personally tested the effectiveness of many of his designs.
To the person who kept burning the toast in the unnamed Stillwater, Minn., factory cafeteria: Thank you. Without your distracted bread-crisping during World War I, we may never have gotten the pop-up toaster.
Charles Strite, a worker at that Stillwater plant, grew frustrated with its cafeteria's charred toast situation. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Strite was "determined to find a way of toasting bread that did not depend on human attention."
In 1921, he received a patent for a toaster in which "toast is automatically removed from the oven when the toasting operation is completed." He continued to refine the idea, and by 1926, the Toastmaster hit the market. It could toast both sides of a slice of bread simultaneously and pop the toast out when it was done (thanks to a timer).
In 1941, General Mills food scientist Lester Borchardt gave the world Cheerios. (Or, actually, Cheerioats. The name wasn't changed to Cheerios until 1945.)
Borchardt developed a method for puffing oat flour into the instantly recognizable Cheerio "O."
Puffing was a game-changer in the cereal world: Before the method was perfected, Twin Cities-based General Mills offered only flaked cereals. Then, engineer Thomas James concocted a puffing gun to produce the new puffed cereals effectively. The company's blog highlights a Fortune magazine article about puffing guns from the 1940s:
Going into the forty guns which look like heavy steel barrels, the cereals are damp and soggy. The barrels are clamped shut and revolved as the heat and pressure in them slowly rise. When the pressure has reached about 100 pounds, a workman flips the gun over, aims it at a wire screen and pulls a trigger. The gun goes boom! and a shower of Kix or Cheerioats hits the screen like hail.
When Cheerios hit the market, it was hailed as a "a satisfactory, tasty, ready-to-eat oat cereal," according to AdWeek. It quickly became a breakfast staple and spawned numerous flavor spinoffs. Honey Nut Cheerios hit the market in 1979, and eventually outpaced the popularity of the original flavor. Honey Nut Cheerios was the best-selling cereal in the country in 2015.
Grocery bag with handles
In 1917, there was one thing keeping St. Paul grocer Walter Deubener up at night: How could he get his customers to buy more groceries? "I used to lie in bed at nights thinking about it," he told the Scientific American years later. "And one night the solution came to me."
That solution? The shopping bag. Deubener invented a paper shopping bag with handles. It was the handles that made the bag revolutionary. "Many times a day I would notice that a customer's purchases were limited by her arms rather than by her pocketbook," he said. The handled bag — which featured two cords that looped underneath the bag — gave his customers an easy way to carry more groceries in a single trip.
Deubener patented the idea and bags quickly became his main business. He gave up groceries and went into manufacturing, swapping a line of 125 workers for specially designed machines as technology developed. By 1927, he was selling 10 million bags a year.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society, Deubener went on to invent several other lesser-known items, including the Jingleloon, a "musical balloon" that has sadly been lost to history. Otherwise, it would definitely be on this list.
Minnesota's widespread fashion hit was born not on the runway, but in the gym.
Bodybuilders Bob Truax and Dan Stock created the loose-fitting zebra-striped pants in 1988 as a fix for gym rats who couldn't find clothes that fit their muscles.
"We made them for us," Truax told the Star Tribune. "It was a very practical thing that evolved into a fashion thing."
The pants quickly became a favorite of professional wrestlers and then professional football players. Fans could buy them in their team's colors. Whole families suited up. Truax and Stock ultimately sold 10 million pairs before they sold their interest in the company. Zubaz went bankrupt in 1996.
But you can't keep a good pair of pants down. Truax and Stock reacquired the trademark after the bankruptcy. As of 2014, Zubaz are once again for sale.
Bundt pans were invented by H. David Dalquist in 1950 — but he had a lot of help.
Dalquist, a World War II veteran, and his wife, Dotty, started a small kitchenware company in their Minneapolis basement in 1946. They called it Nordic Ware, and they manufactured traditional Scandinavian cooking products, like a krumkake iron.
But then the Hadassah Society, a local organization of Jewish women, asked Dalquist to cast a pan for cooking kugelhopf, a traditional European ring cake.
Dalquist originally called the finished product a "bund" pan, according to Food & Wine magazine. "Bund" in German means alliance or bond. He may have added the "t" for trademarking purposes, or to avoid connections to the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization.
The Bundt pan was not an immediate success, though. It didn't become a household staple until 1966, when a Texas woman named Ella Rita Helfrich used one to snag second place in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Her recipe for the Tunnel of Fudge Cake became a national sensation, and Nordic Ware had to run two factories around the clock to meet demand, according to the Houston Chronicle.
For years Dalquist gave the factory's production seconds to the Hadassah Society, to show his appreciation for inspiring the pan. The group sold the pans to raise funds that they used to build schools and hospitals in Israel, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Today, Nordic Ware estimates that more than 70 million households around the world have Bundt pans.
Reyn Guyer makes his second appearance on this list, thanks to his work with Nerf.
Moving on from the success of Twister, Minneapolis inventor Guyer developed a soft foam ball which the Parker Bros. toy company marketed in 1969 as Nerf, "the world's first indoor ball."
The company wanted to follow it up with a lightweight football, but they couldn't get the shape and weight right. That's where the Minnesota Vikings come in.
By sheer chance, Vikings kicker Fred Cox, together with John Mattox, was designing an injection-molded lightweight football as part of a backyard sports set for kids.
They pitched it to Parker Bros., according to the Vikings, and the company snapped it up. The Nerf football hit shelves in 1972. It quickly became best-selling Nerf product and spawned a whole series of spin-offs, including the Vortex, the Turbo and more.
There are several origin stories for the vaunted pizza roll, that paragon of microwave cuisine, but Jeno Paulucci of northern Minnesota made them what they are today.
Paulucci was born in Aurora, Minn., and graduated from Hibbing High School in 1935. He went into the family business — groceries — which gave him a personal view of the popular foods of the day. When he noticed a demand for Chinese food, he founded Chun King and began selling canned chow mein. After selling that business, he launched Jeno's Inc. in 1968, which sold frozen pizzas and, of course, pizza rolls.
The New York Times described the pizza roll as "a combination single slice and egg roll" in Paulucci's obituary — a fusion of his two food empires. He died in 2011 at his home in Duluth; he was 93.
Paulucci's pizza roll legacy lives on, though. Pillsbury purchased Jeno's Pizza Rolls in 1985 for $135 million, and rebranded it as Totino's Pizza Rolls, which remain a popular, mouth-singeing snack today. (Totino's, of course, is another Minnesota pizza dynasty. It started as a restaurant in northeast Minneapolis and became a line of frozen pizzas, which was purchased by Pillsbury in 1975.)
Greyhound Bus Lines
The most famous bus company in the country started with a car.
In 1914, Carl Eric Wickman opened a car dealership in Hibbing, Minn. It had just one car — a single Hupmobile — and nobody bought it.
Wickman, a Swedish immigrant and former miner, quickly realized that the market for cars wasn't exactly booming on the Iron Range. Most people couldn't afford a car of their own, so instead, Wickman turned the Hupmobile into a shuttle service, driving miners between the Range communities of Alice and Hibbing. (Alice was later annexed by Hibbing.)
Wickman partnered with Andrew "Bus Andy" Anderson, and they built a fleet of vehicles to serve the area. According to The Washington Post, they charged 15 cents per ride and made a $7.40 profit on the second day of business.
Through mergers and partnerships, their company — then named the Mesaba Transportation Company — became the largest bus operation on the Iron Range by 1917, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. They expanded service to Duluth and other communities, buying new vehicles and extending their routes.
After a long series of mergers, new investors and offshoots, that company became Greyhound. (The story goes that a driver caught sight of the reflection of one of their cars and thought it looked like a greyhound dog.) Today, Greyhound bus routes ferry almost 18 million people around the North America to more than 3,800 destinations.
There's no single American hero to thank for the invention of Spam: It was a group effort at Hormel headquarters in Austin, Minn. The first can of Spam hit the market in 1937. Despite the urban legends that sprang up abouts its contents, and what exactly the name "Spam" stood for, there's no mystery to it. The ingredients are simple: pork shoulder, salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrite.
According to Eater, the Spam recipe went unchanged from 1937 until 2009, when Hormel added potato starch to the mix.
Spam quickly became a staple in military diets around the world as World War II broke out. In a New Yorker article from 1945, company president Jay Hormel acknowledged the heat he was getting from the troops: "In his office at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, he keeps what he calls his Scurrilous File, in which he dumps the letters of abuse that are sent to him by soldiers everywhere around the world."
Even then, less than 10 years after its introduction, Spam was the butt of the joke.
"We got the distinct impression that being responsible for Spam might be too great a burden for any one man," the New Yorker wrote of Hormel. But Hormel defended the product to the end.
"Damn it, we eat it in our own home," he said. Today, according to the Hormel company, Spam products are sold in 44 countries around the world — and 12.8 cans of Spam are eaten every second.
Scott Olson didn't invent inline skating. Inline skating is older even than rollerskating, dating as far back as 1700s Holland.
But Olson did invent Rollerblades — the incarnation that rocketed inline skating into a worldwide sensation.
Olson was 19 and living in Minneapolis when his younger brother brought home a pair of inline skates he'd picked up in Canada. Both brothers had hockey dreams: Olson wanted to be a goalie in the NHL. He started to tinker with the skates, adjusting the wheels to make them faster and modifying the boot for comfort. He figured they would be the perfect training tool for hockey players in the off-season.
He was right, but the skates attracted far more people than just hockey players.
In 1981, the Rollerblade company was born. Rollerbladers became unavoidable (sometimes literally) on sidewalks and paths around the country. By 1988, the company was doing $10 million in annual sales. Competitors piled into the market and, according to Marketplace, the industry peaked at nearly half a billion in sales in the 1990s.
Though the sport is no longer as popular as it once was, Olson didn't stop inventing. In the decades since Rollerblade, he's created the lunar bed, the Rowbike and a giant version of pingpong called Kong Pong.
Indoor shopping mall
In 1956, Southdale Center opened in Edina, Minn.
It was the first of its kind: An indoor, two-level shopping mall with air conditioning and heat.
According to the New Yorker, it cost "$20 million, and had 72 stores and two anchor department-store tenants, Donaldson's and Dayton's."
The mall was the brainchild of architect Victor Gruen. Nearly every indoor shopping mall that's opened in the sixty years since has echoed Gruen's design.
But not everyone was a fan. According to the Star Tribune, when an 87-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright toured the shopping center in 1956, he said: "Who wants to sit in that desolate-looking spot? You've got a garden court that has all the evils of the village street and none of its charm."
The party game Twister was almost too tangled to succeed.
The polka-dotted mat and spinner were the invention of Charles Foley and Neil Rabens, who worked for the Reynolds Guyer House of Design in Minneapolis. They first called the game "Pretzel" — an apt description of the bodily contortion required to win. (Reyn Guyer, the son of the company's founder, says he hired them to develop a game that used players as pieces. Guyer called his own first attempt "King's Footsie." He pitched it to 3M, who turned it down.)
When the idea was sold to Milton Bradley, Pretzel became Twister. But the toy company almost stopped production on Twister after initial sales were slow. The Sears catalog deemed the game, which involved the tangle of body parts, "too risque." Twister was only saved by Johnny Carson, who got down on the floor to play a round with Eva Gabor on his show in May 1966.
In his book "Right Brain Red," Guyer writes that Carson's demo sent sales soaring. Milton Bradley sold 3 million Twister sets the next year. The game is still a household favorite today, and in 2006, Twister was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
In 1922, according to the Lake City (Minn.) Historical Society, 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson invented the first pair of water skis. It took him a few tries, though.
First, he used barrel planks, and then actual snow skis in the water, but neither attempt worked. Finally, Samuelson went to the lumberyard and bought long two boards.
From the LCHS:
He and his older sister Harriet painted them white and he picked up some scrap leather at a harness shop to make binders for his feet. Samuelson then bought 100 feet of sash cord at the local hardware and talked a blacksmith into making him an iron ring for a handle. He wrapped the ring with black tape to make it easier on his hands.
The planks worked: Ralph's brother, Ben, pulled him on the handcrafted skis behind a motorboat on Lake Pepin. He only managed to stay upright for a few yards, but it was the beginning of an invention.
Samuelson went on to perform in water ski shows for years, until he broke his back in a construction accident, according to the LCHS. Though he is often credited with sparking the water ski craze that spread across the country, he never patented his design. In 1925, Fred Waller of New York patented his own set, which he marketed as Dolphin Akwa-Skees. Samuelson went on to become a turkey farmer.
A replica set of Samuelson's first skis — eight feet long and nine inches wide — is on display at the Lake City Chamber of Commerce.
Yes, there's a patent for an apple.
The Honeycrisp, like many other recent apple varieties, was specially cultivated at the University of Minnesota's horticultural research center in Chanhassen.
It was first known as MN 1711, and, according to the New Yorker, it was almost "marked for termination." But University plant breeder David Bedford gave the tree a chance, and that chance paid off.
Consumers got their first taste of the apple in the 1990s, and people went crazy for it.
Since it was introduced, the Honeycrisp apple has brought in millions of dollars in royalties for the University of Minnesota. It also gave us the next generation of delicious: Honeycrisp is a parent of the SweeTango apple that hit stores in 2009.