Thursday, July 29, 2010

Inventions from the Fox Valley (Fox Cities) of Wisconsin

As a proud resident of Appleton, Wisconsin in the beautiful Fox Valley, I'm happy to report that this area has a surprisingly rich history of invention and innovation. In fact, the Fox Valley is one of the most patent-rich parts of the Midwest, largely due to the intense patenting activities of consumer products companies like Kimberly-Clark Corp. (which usually gets more patents each year than MIT!) and Georgia-Pacific.

Here is a small sampling of the innovations that have come from this region with a population under 200,000 people (Appleton, the largest city in the Valley, has just 75,000).
  • Carbonless paper and a host of innovations related to microcapsules applied to paper. Appleton Paper helped lead the way, developing the coating processes that allowed microcapsules to be applied to paper at high speed without crushing them. Recently Procter & Gamble licensed Appleton's encapsulation technology to apply long-lasting fragrance in microcapsules to laundry via Downy laundry sheets. Numerous innovative applications remain to be developed.

  • Cellucotton or creped tissue paper: the absorbent paper wadding material used as a wound dressing and then as the basis for Kotex feminine care products, invented by Ernst Mahler of Kimberly-Clark Corporation. This also led to Kleenex facial tissue and numerous related innovations, including anti-viral tissue, many innovations in processing and packaging, and eventually soft uncreped tissue (with about 50 patents protecting this significant advance in technology, the basis now for several leading products).

  • High performance disposable diapers were invented in the Fox Valley. Key innovations include the use of superabsorbent polymers to increase absorbency and a variety of structures for reducing leakage and improving comfort.

  • In April of 1969, Dr. Lawson Winton cloned the world's first test-tube tree, a triploid quaking aspen, at the Institute of Paper Chemistry. Genetic engineering of trees is now the basis for some of the world’s largest suppliers of renewable fiber, such as Fibria of Brazil.

  • Appleton was home to the first electric street car. The first electric street cars began operating in Appleton on August 16, 1886. Appleton was also the first community in the nation to have electric street cars. They ran until 1930. Sources: Wisconsin Historical Society and

  • Appleton made history for having the first buildings in the world with electric lighting from hydroelectric power. From “On the evening of Saturday, September 30, 1882, Appleton Paper and Pulp Company, the Vulcan Paper Company, and the Hearthstone (home of H. J. Rogers), became the first buildings in the world lighted by electricity generated from the Edison hydroelectric central station.”

  • Inverter power sources for arc welders from Miller Electric. See Miller Electric has been the source of many significant innovation in arc welding, including the world's first engine-driven inverter. See

  • The Fox Valley is home of many significant advances in packaging for microwave-heated foods, such as US Pat. No. 4,861,958, “Packaging Container for Microwave Popcorn Popping,” by Tim Bohrer (Neenah, WI), Tom Pawlowski (Neenah), and Richard Brown (Appleton, WI) of Fort James Corp., now Georgia-Pacific. This was part of a series of patents for “microwave susceptor” technology that allowed a portion of the package to heat up to properly deliver heat to the food being cooked. They were part of the Fox Valley team that developed the first microwavable popcorn package which insured that more kernels would pop and that the package would expand to accommodate the popped corn. The invention was a huge success selling over a billion units per year in North America. The technology was expanded using chemical deactivation technology which resulted in patented processes for products used by Kraft, Heinz Ore-Ida, ConAgra, and others.

  • LiveYearbook ( This is a startup company that is inventing new ways to provide long-lasting, dynamic yearbooks at low cost for schools and organizations. They were the first IT company and first Northeastern WI company to win the Governor’s Business Prize Award (2010). The programming for this concept is being done here in the Fox Valley.

  • The famous enMotion® paper towel dispenser, the one that automatically delivers towel by waving your hands in front of it, was developed in Neenah by a Georgia-Pacific team.

  • A variety of papermaking advances have their origins in the valley, including Georgia Pacific's foam-based tissue forming technology that was commercialized in France and novel fabrics for papermaking from Kimberly-Clark, Appleton Wire (now Albany International), and Asten Johnson. The famous Crecent Former, used worldwide for making tissue, was a local innovation from Kimberly-Clark. Also, dryer bars--the rods used in rotating steam-filled driers to enhance heat transfer in drying tissue and paper around the world--were invented in the Valley at Kimberly-Clark Corp. and have saved vast amounts of energy over the years. The Pulmac Classifier for detecting "stickies"--polymer junk that can interfere with papermaking--was also developed in the Valley.

  • Some of the most valuable advances in nonwoven textiles and fabrics came from Fox Valley inventors working for Kimberly-Clark Corp. This includes the foundation for many of the laminated fabrics that are used in medical gowns and other health care products, the soft webs used in diapers and many other products, stretchable nonwovens, and polymer-paper fiber composites.

If you would like to see other inventions from this region featured, let me know.

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