Creativity thrives in Iowa. Iowans with lively imaginations have contributed to the world of medicine, science, the arts, journalism, law, politics and business. Of course, Iowa isn’t the only state that produces innovators. But many pioneering works across many fields have been produced by Iowans. Take a look at some notable innovators who have Iowa connections.
Patrick J. Lawler was a farm kid who didn’t like the hard work of farming. Picking corn by hand left him exhausted. But he liked tinkering with machines and dreamed of an easier way to get the job done.
By 1880 Patrick had drawn his ideas for a corn picking machine on paper. With the help of John F. Barry, a lawyer from Chicago, Patrick built a working model of his dream. Then on a sunny afternoon in 1885 a crowd gathered at the Lawler farm near Wall Lake to watch the strange machine pick corn. Neighbors were amazed as the horse-drawn picker poured out a stream of husked ears.
A Chicago manufacturing company offered Patrick money for the rights to produce his machine, but he and John Barry wanted to manufacture the corn picker themselves. They purchased a blacksmith shop and built two machines but were unable to sell them. Patrick Lawler's first corn picker was sold for scrap in 1932.
In 1892 John Froelich built the first gasoline-powered tractor that propelled itself backward and forward. His invention helped pave the way for modern farming.
John grew up in Froelich, a Clayton County town named after his father, Henry. John ran a feed mill and elevator and tinkered with machines. Mounting a gasoline engine on a well-drilling rig gave him the idea to mount an internal combustion engine on a tractor. A few weeks later, the tractor— a forerunner of John Deere tractors— was shipped to South Dakota, where it threshed 72,000 bushels of wheat in 52 days.
Froelich, with other investors, founded the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company in 1893. This company eventually became the John Deere Tractor Works.
August Werner had a vision. He wanted to be the first person to invent an aircraft that could actually fly—with a person in it! For months Werner secretly worked on his invention. On July 4, 1886, Werner and a passenger got into his homemade helicopter. The machine rose about four feet off the ground before one of the wooden cogs gave way and the helicopter crashed into a heap. Werner never again attempted to fly. But his four-foot flight took place 17 years before the Wright brothers took their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk.
Need a snack? Plug some change into a vending machine and you'll be using an Iowa inventor's creation. In 1931 F.A. Wittern invested his last $12.50 to buy some used tools and start a company that became one of the nation's biggest vending machine manufacturers. Fawn Engineering Co. is located in Clive, Iowa.
In 1988, artist Sharen Brower of Newell was experimenting in her studio. She tested a new type of ink made from soybean oil. Brower liked using this ink because farmers grow soy beans throughout Iowa. In 1991, Brower obtained patents for formulas for soy newspaper ink, artist's ink, paint and other products.
Cedar Rapids native George F. Nissen loved to bounce. And he knew that most kids do too. As a kid, Nissen's heroes were circus acrobats. As a college student in the 1930s, Nissen was a national intercollegiate tumbling champion. Nissen invented the modern trampoline, building his first model in 1931. By 1940, he produced trampolines full-time at his home. The business grew, and Nissen moved production to a Cedar Rapids factory site in 1947. Nissen sold his trampoline manufacturing business to a New Jersey company in 1981.
Many individuals have fought for civil rights for women in the United States. One Iowa women became a legend in the fight. Carrie Lane Chapman Catt was a graduate of Iowa State College in 1880. She was the only woman in her class and graduated at the top of the class. She became the superintendent of schools in Mason City. Carrie worked to win the right to vote for women in local elections in Iowa. Later she went on to become the president of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association. She organized the League of Women Voters when it looked like women would finally get to vote.
Iowa has produced many innovators in the world of arts. Phil Stong became famous for a novel he wrote about the Iowa State Fair. It was made into movies and a Broadway play. Nellie Verne Walker was a noted sculptor who was born and lived in Iowa for part of her life. Ding Darling was an award-winning political cartoonist. Famous jazz musician, Bix Beiderbecke, was from Davenport, Iowa. Centerville native, Simon Estes, is known around the world as a great opera singer.
James Van Allen at the University of Iowa is renowned as a pioneer in space research. Henry A. Wallace developed hybrid seed corn. George Washington Carver was the first African-American to graduate from Iowa State College and the first to serve on its faculty.
Look Around Your Town
Many, many Iowans from the past fit into the category of “innovators.” But innovators don’t have to be people from the past. Innovators are all around us in Iowa today. Many students in the small towns and cities across the state are creative thinkers. Many men and women at Iowa’s colleges and in Iowa’s businesses are making important scientific discoveries and creating lasting works of art and literature.
- The Des Moines Register. “Famous Iowans.” http://data.desmoinesregister.com/famous-iowans/
- Millie Frese, Ed., “Iowa Inventors A-Z,” The Goldfinch 20, no. 1 (Fall 1998): 4-14.