Invented in the 920: Patent Edition

The Fox Cities have a long history of innovation. From medical advancements to manhole covers, here are a few groundbreaking inventions from locals who made the bold move to patent their big ideas.


Charles W. Howard’s Telephone Call Annunciator

Telephone Technology

In 1884, Neenah resident Charles W. Howard, the grandfather of Hollywood legend Howard Hawks, patented a telephone call annunciator — that’s the bell in a call box that would ring when a call is received. Howard’s annunciator is an antique by today’s standards, but the technology at the time was revolutionary. Howard’s invention functioned sort of like a row of dominoes. According to the patent, when a call was made the ringing of the call bell would vibrate the lever. The vibrations cause its lug to strike the lug of a disk, throwing the latter over its center, falling into a downward position indicating that a call has been made.

New and Improved Darning Last

Blanche C. Shiells of Neenah, a rare female inventor for her time, was issued a patent on February 19, 1901 for her updated darning last. A darning last is a hard, egg-shaped object that is placed into a stocking or sock to preserve its shape during the mending process. While the darning last itself already existed, Shiells’ version included a new feature. She added concavities on each end and sides of the last that would facilitate the darning of different kinds of garments, not just socks, as well as a greater variety of hole sizes. But this was not Shiells’ only invention. She also patented a (unglamorous, but useful) portable urinal bottle.

Envelope Update

On August 23, 1904, William W. Ormsbee Jr. of Kaukauna was issued a patent for improvements to the envelope — didn’t think it was possible, did you? Known at the time as a “payenvelope,” Ormsbee added extra flaps to the side walls of the envelope. When lateral pressure is applied to the flaps, the envelope mouth will automatically open. It provided easier access when placing or retrieving items from the envelope.

126-arts-anchorsTeam Pride

Roloff Manufacturing Corporation in Kaukauna recently patented their navy boat anchors in two colors. President David Roloff says the company has been making three styles of anchors for many years, but wanted to appeal to different industries. An employee came up with the idea to offer anchors in two colors to represent sports teams or even businesses. After a nearly two- year process, Roloff received his patent number in September. The company now offers vinyl-coated anchors in team themes, including green and gold, red and white and even orange and black for the Kaukauna Galloping Ghosts.

Two-in-one Crib

In 1920, Russel M. Firestone of Appleton patented a combination crib and dresser. The patent provided simple construction, convenient arrangement and occupied minimal space in a room, all desirable qualities for new parents. The invention looked like a modern-day crib with a dresser resting underneath the left side and drawers facing outward for easy access. All of the baby’s clothes were kept in drawers below the crib, so parents didn’t have to walk away from their infants at changing time.

Eye Care Advancements

Optivision Eye Care ophthalmologist Dr. Gerald P. Clarke of Appleton holds three patents in his field of eye and vision care. In 2011 and again in 2013, Dr. Clarke patented intraocular lenses that are implanted in the eye to mimic the natural near vision capabilities in younger patients. For patients who have cataracts removed, it provides smooth focusing from distance vision to near reading vision. In 2015, Dr. Clarke patented an iris protector to aid during cataract surgeries complicated by small pupils, which make visualization difficult during the surgery. The soft, flexible iris protector, referred to as the Clarke Horseshoe, is widely used to dilate and stabilize the pupil, providing a safer method of performing the surgery.

126-arts-pierceEdited Aerial Ladder

Pierce Manufacturing was recently issued a patent for its 107-foot, two-axle Ascendant aerial ladder that was engineered to provide firefighters with better performing trucks. A traditional aerial ladder attached to a fire truck requires three axles to support the weight of its parts. The two-axle ladder Pierce developed allows for a shorter truck, which is 20,000 pounds lighter and more maneuverable, especially in tight areas like cul-de-sacs. It is also advantageous to municipalities which can now purchase the trucks at a lower cost. Less weight and fewer components also mean less wear and tear, which lowers the cost of ownership over time on repairs.


Big names in Fox Cities inventions:

Ernst Mahler

This Austrian chemist moved to Neenah in 1914 where he invented cellucotton, an absorbent cellulose-based cotton substitute in several Kimberly-Clark products like Kleenex and Kotex.

John Stevens

A miller and inventor who lived in Neenah, Stevens patented nearly 20 inventions over his career, including the roller mill in 1880 which revolutionized the flour milling process as we know it.

James P. Keating

Keating, a Neenah native, spent more than 50 years with the Neenah Foundry. In 1931, he patented the first non-rocking manhole cover. His designs have been copied extensively and have a cult following. Fans worldwide are encouraged to share pictures of their Neenah manhole cover sightings on the Neenah Foundry Manhole Covers Facebook page.

— By Amelia Compton Wolff and Nicole Witmer 



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