A guide to Wisconsin’s technology and entrepreneurial milestones.
Wisconsin has a rich history of innovation and entrepreneurial activity. From its territorial days to the first decade of the 21st century, the state has produced ideas, inventions and intellectual property that have improved life for millions of people in Wisconsin and around the world.
Understanding Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial past is critical to envisioning its exciting future as a place to work, live and grow a business. We have built a foundation of innovation over the years, and we continue to welcome people, ideas and companies that will strengthen that base as we reach new heights as a state and a region.
As you read this timeline, you will come across many familiar names from the fields of science, agriculture and manufacturing — from Babcock to Temin, from Kohler to Thomson, and from Evinrude to DeLuca. These pioneers help tell the story of Wisconsin through their enduring legacies.
Wisconsin’s combination of educational, research and business resources have made this a state where innovation is a way of life. Please read on to learn more.
1844 – On a farm near Janesville, George Esterly invents the first harvesting machine. He subsequently invents several other farm implements.
1858 – On his stepfather’s Iowa County farm, John Francis Appleby invents the basic knotting device that would become the foundation for all farm binding machinery.
1868 – Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee patents the first typewriter.
1871 – John Carhart, a Methodist minister from Racine, designs and builds the first steam-powered automobile.
1878 – Wisconsin hosts the nation’s first automobile race when the state offers $10,000 to the inventor of a machine that can move from Green Bay to Madison under its own power. With an average speed of six miles per hour, it takes Alexander Gallagher of Oshkosh about 22 hours to win the race.
1878 – John Francis Appleby of Mazomanie invents the twine binder, which would become the basis for farm machines produced by the McCormick, Champion and Osborn companies.
1880s – Harry Armenius Miller of Menomonie invents the first motorcycle by attaching a one-cylinder engine to a bicycle.
1882 – The first commercial hydroelectric plant begins to operate on the rapids of the Fox River in Appleton.
1883 – John Michael Kohler manufactures the first enameled cast-iron plumbing fixtures.
1883 — Warren S. Johnson, a professor at the State Normal School in Whitewater, Wisconsin, receives a patent for the first electric room thermostat. His invention launched the building control industry and was the impetus for a new company, today known as Johnson Controls.
1885 – George Hinkley invents the band sawmill and installs it at the Jump River Lumber Company in Prentice.
1885 – Joseph Steinwand develops a new product at the cheese factory he and his father operate. He names it for the nearby town of Colby.
1886 – The first successful commercial electric street railway begins operation in Appleton.
1887 – Racine food manufacturer William Horlick invents malted milk.
1889 – Working out of a red brick barn in Milwaukee, Gottfried Schloemer builds the first gasoline-driven automobile, the Motor Wagon.
1890 – University of Wisconsin professor Stephen Babcock develops a tester for measuring the amount of butterfat in milk, helping Wisconsin earn its reputation as America’s Dairyland.
1891 – Franklin King, a professor of natural science at River Falls State Normal School, develops the round silo. The new design solves the problem of storing winter cattle silage and allows dairying to advance as a major farming sector in Wisconsin.
1892 – Wisconsin becomes the first state to use the tuberculin test to detect TB in cattle, solidifying the state’s reputation as a leader in the production of beef and cheese.
1894 – Wisconsin bacteriologists tested and then autopsied the first tuberculin-infected dairy herd in the nation.
1895 – Bacteriologists in Wisconsin develop proper methods for pasteurization of milk and heat treatment of canning peas.
1899 – Milwaukee’s Arthur Oliver Smith develops the first steel automobile frame.
1901 – Two University of Wisconsin mechanical engineering students, Charles Hart and Charles Parr, build the first successful gasoline-powered farm tractor.
1908 – Otto Zachow and William Besserdich invent the four-wheel-drive automobile in Clintonville.
1910 – Two engineers from Racine, Chester Beach and Frederick Osius, and a master marketer, Louis Hamilton, make household appliance history by inventing a small motor that ran on either AC or DC electrical power. The first Hamilton-Beach product was an electric, hand-held massager. The new motor, known as the fractional horsepower motor, revolutionized the appliance industry.
1910 – Ole Evinrude of Milwaukee designs the first commercially successful outboard gasoline engine for boats.
1912 – Beloit’s Arthur P. Warner perfects the automobile speedometer, which would become standard equipment on every vehicle produced in the United States.
1913 – Researchers at the University of Wisconsin create the first U.S. program to produce potato seed free from diseases that were devastating the crop.
1915 – The University of Wisconsin’s experimental radio station, 9XM (now WHA, the nation’s oldest radio station), begins transmitting signals.
1916 – Dr. E.V. McCollum of the University of Wisconsin discovers Vitamin A with university colleague Margaret Davis, who also discovers Vitamin B.
1918 – The University of Wisconsin creates the first genetics department in the United States.
1920s – Biochemist Edwin Bret Hart invents iodized salt. He later found that iodine could prevent endemic goiter and developed a method to stabilize iodine in salt, effectively eliminating the disease in humans and livestock.
1924 – Biochemist Harry Steenbock discovered that ultraviolet light activates vitamin D. His discovery led to the nearly universal prevention of rickets.
1927 – John Hammes of Racine invests the first kitchen garbage disposal and founds In-Sink-Erator to manufacture them.
1928 – Wisconsin researchers find that adding copper and iron salts to the diet could prevent anemia.
1930s – First real measurements of starlight recorded in the Washburn Observatory in Madison, Wis.
1930s – Animal scientists at UW-Madison identified several hormones that regulate reproduction in cattle and developed new methods to correct infertility.
1930 – Harry Harlow is the first to prove that monkeys could learn. He was also able to illustrate through his monkey subjects that there is a biological basis of attachment between mother and infant. He was awarded the National Medal of Science – the nation’s highest scientific honor – for his work.
1933 – Wisconsin develops the nation’s first large-scale demonstration of soil and water conservation at the Coon Creek Watershed in Vernon County.
1934 – Les Paul of Waukesha invents the first electric guitar.
1935 – The Hamilton Manufacturing Company of Two Rivers produces the first automatic clothes dryer.
1936 — Anethesiologist Ralph Waters of the University of Wisconsin announces the results of his ground-breaking research, which marked the transition from the use of ether to a more effective and safer cyclopropane for anesthesia.
1936 – Physician/scientist Frederic E. Mohs of Madison pioneers a micrographic surgery technique to treat skin cancer. The “Mohs Surgery” technique relied on extremely precise dissections of tumors instead of the gross removal of tumor masses, and is still in widespread use today.
1930s – John Atana soff devises crude computing devices powered by vacuum tubes that would be used as part of the first electronic digital computer.
1937 – University of Wisconsin scientist Conrad Elvehjem discovers another of the B vitamins: Niacin. His discovery was used to cure pellagra.
1939 – Henry Lardy and Paul Phillips found a way to preserve and store mammalian sperm, giving rise to the artificial insemination industry.
1941 – University of Wisconsin professors Karl Paul Link and Harold Campbell report the isolation of dicumarol (courmarin), the first of the oral anticoagulants now widely used in surgery and the treatment of circulatory disorders.
1941 – Harold Rusch, oncology researcher, physician and founding director of the UW-Madison McArdle Laboratory, identified the wavelength of UV light that causes skin cancer.
1942 – Scientists begin work on mass penicillin production. Their techniques eventually make this infection-controlling drug widely available at a modest cost — $60 per standard dose in 1943, compared to less than 25 cents today.
1943 – Engineers perfected the first mechanical tree planter, accelerating reforestation efforts.
1947 — Electrical engineer John Bardeen invents the world’s first transistor. He was later awarded the Nobel Prize (twice).
1948 – University of Wisconsin geneticist Joshua Lederberg discovers that bacteria exchange genetic material. He later received a Nobel Prize for the work.
1949 – University of Wisconsin biochemists announce development of Warfarin, one of the world’s most effective and widely used rat killers.
1949 – Joseph Zimmerman of Milwaukee invents the first telephone answering machine, known as the “Electronic Secretary.”
1950s – Pediatrician and biochemist Harry Waisman identifies a way to combat phenylketonuria (PKU), a condition suspected of causing mental retardation. His efforts led to the mandatory screening for PKU at birth.
1950s – Seymour Cray of Chippewa Falls develops machines that later evolve into the first Univac computers.
1951 – First embryo transplants in cattle are made. A fertilized ovum is transplanted from one cow to another cow, which then gives birth to the calf.
1952 – Les Paul of Waukesha invents the eight track recorder now used widely by the recording industry.
1953 – Dale Wurster of the University of Wisconsin develops a pharmaceutical tablet coating technique that masks the unpleasant taste of drugs and helps to control their release in the body.
1955 – Botanist Folke Skoog discovers hormones that regulate plant growth.
1956 – Researchers develop milk antibiotic screening procedures based on reduction of tetrazolium compound.
1957 – Researchers at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research synthesize fluorouracil, a drug used widely to treat a variety of cancers.
1957 – Manucher Javid of Madison invents a “uera solution” to relieve the swelling of tissues during brain surgery.
1958 — Dr. Joshua Lederberg is awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on how bacteria reproduce and produce resistance to antibiotics.
1958 – Electrical engineer Jack St. Clair Kilby invents the first integrated circuit.
1959 – UW-Madison food scientists are first to develop sterile concentrated milk.
1960s – Dr. Hector DeLuca of the UW discovers how Vitamin D regulates calcium levels in the body. His research enables other faculty to treat osteoporosis.
1963 – First mechanical cherry harvester developed.
1963 – John Bollinger designs the first robot welder that could control motion in five directions. His invention helped Milwaukee’s A.O. Smith Company automate its welding process and revolutionize the manufacturing of automobile frames.
1965 – Following a botulism outbreak linked to smoked Great Lakes fish, microbiologists develop methods to smoke, salt and cure smoked fish to avoid the deadly disease.
1968 – A team of scientists and surgeons at the University of Wisconsin in Madison performs the first successful bone marrow transplant.
1968 – Dr. Hector DeLuca heads a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin who isolate a Vitamin D derivative which can be used to enrich foods.
1968 – A device built at the University of Wisconsin becomes the first observatory to look at space from space and paves the way for further space-based observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
1968 – Molecular biologist Har Gobind Khorana shares in the Nobel Prize for his work in describing the genetic code and how it operates in protein synthesis. He was also the first to synthesize oligonucleotides, or strings of nucleotides. These custom-designed pieces of artificial genes are widely used in biology labs for sequencing, cloning and engineering new plants and animals.
1970s – UW geneticist Dr. Howard Temin discovers how tumor viruses affect the genetical material of the cell through reverse transcriptase. This upset the widely held belief at the time of the “central dogma” of molecular biology by Nobel laureate Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA. Temin shared in the 1975 Nobel Prize.
1971 – Biochemists identify and synthesize the hormone the body makes from vitamin D, which led to treatments to prevent bone loss in individuals with kidney and parathyroid diseases.
1972 – Scientists create Polyurethane foam from whey.
1976 — Medical physicist Charles Mistretta pioneers new x-ray and computer technology to produce images of blood vessels. Along with Paul Moran, he is a developer of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, better known as MRI.
1976 – Veterinary scientists describe a biological agent smaller than the smallest virus as being responsible for a highly fatal disease of mink and show that the ailment is closely related to scrapie disease in sheep.
1976 – Food scientists extract pigment from beets to replace synthetic food coloring linked to cancer.
1977 – UW-Madison professor Larry Landweber creates “Theorynet,” which provides electronic mail to more than 100 computer science researchers via a locally developed e-mail system called Telenet. Two years later, Landweber organizes a meeting between Wisconsin researchers, DARPA, the National Science Foundation and other computer scientists to establish a Computer Science Department research computer network. It is among the origins of the Internet.
1980s – Horticulturists at the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture & Life Sciences are first to clone a plant gene.
1980s – UW-Madison transplant surgeon Hans Sollinger develops the “Wisconsin technique” used in pancreas transplantation.
1980s — Oncologist Ernest Borden begins the first clinical trials of interferon, a natural substance that helps stimulate the body’s defense mechanisms to fight cancer.
1980s – Wisconsin animal scientists discover ways to mature and fertilize cattle eggs outside a cow.
1980s – Plant breeders develop carrots high in vitamin A to help impoverished countries reduce disease resultant from vitamin A deficiency.
1980s – Animal scientists identified strains of swine with genetic differences in their ability to metabolize cholesterol and their susceptibility to heart disease. Their discovery became an important model for evaluating heart disease therapies.
1980 – Charles Mistretta and other researchers at the University of Wisconsin pioneer the digital subtraction angioplasty (DSA), a digital imaging technique which was viewed as an essential part of the image reconstruction process in CT and MR imaging.
1981 – Biotyping of Newcastle disease virus in poultry and birds provides way to control introduction of the disease into the United States.
1981 – The first transgenic plant (bean protein in sunflowers) demonstrates the potential for genetic engineering in plants.
1983 – The world’s first test-tube rhesus monkey, Petri, is born on the University of Wisconsin campus.
1984 – Nutritional scientists show dietary calcium can reduce blood pressure in hypertensive women.
1985 – Virologist Roland Rueckert produces the first three-dimensional picture of a cold virus. His atom-by-atom rendering revealed that no cold vaccine could ever be developed, as the places where a vaccine would work are inaccessible to antibodies.
1986 — Oncologists Paul Carbone and Richard Love lead the first clinical trials of DFMO (difluoromethylornithine), a cancer-preventing agent that slows an enzyme involved in tumor growth.
1986 – Researchers at the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture & Life Sciences were the first to put a gene into a woody plant cell and then regenerate an entire tree from that cell.
1987 – UW-Madison Dr. Folkert Belzer and James Southard develop a solution to preserve organs for transplant for longer periods of time.
1987 – Scientists at the University of Wisconsin clone cattle for the first time, proving it was possible to produce elite strains of livestock valued by producers and consumers.
1987 – Lysozyme, a natural compound in tears, is found to kill bacteria that cause food poisoning.
1988 – DNA probe for Johne’s disease shortens diagnostic confirmation time from three months to three days.
1990 – Dairy scientists developed a genetic technique to identify dairy sires carrying a gene that leads to better performance in their offspring.
1991 – Henry Guckel produces the world’s first working metal micromotor. About the width of three human hairs, it is precise enough to produce new medical tools and aviation controls.
1993 – Doctors at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee perform the first gene therapy trial for heart disease.
1993 – Biochemists revolutionize our understanding of how muscles operate by producing detailed images of the muscle protein myosin.
1990s — Developmental biologist Dr. James Thomson of the UW-Madison conducts pioneering work in the isolation and culture of non-human primate and human embryonic stem cells, undifferentiated cells that have the ability to become any of the cells that make up the tissues of the body. Dr. Thomson directed the group that reported the first isolation of embryonic stem cell lines from a non-human primate in 1995, work that led his group to the first successful isolation of human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998.
1997 – Researchers decode all of the genes of Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacterium widely used in biological research and industry.
1997 – Scientists discovered a new group of bacterial toxins whose genes can be moved into plants to protect crops from insects without applying pesticides.
1997 – Chemical engineer Regina Murphy and chemist Laura Kiessling discover a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s patients by designing “inhibitor molecules” that disrupt the proteins that form poisonous deposits in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
1999 – A University of Wisconsin research team makes a breakthrough in DNA computing. The university team created a crude molecular computer “chip” made of a small glass plate covered with a thin layer of gold, making real the possibility of ultrahigh-capacity storage and massively parallel searches.
2006 – A team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report the discovery of a method for making human collagen in the lab. Their work opens the door to producing a material that can have broad use in medicine and replace the animal products that are now used but that can also harbor pathogens or spark undesirable immune responses.
2006 – Dr. James Thomson and others announce a precisely defined stem cell culture system free of animal cells. The breakthrough shows stem cell lines can be grown successfully without animal contamination, and moves research a step closer to clinical reality.