Made in America: Innovative Companies and Their Inspiring Stories
Many American companies were created by innovative individuals just wanting to solve a problem. Check out these inspiring success stories.
The United States has always been a good place for inventors, tinkerers and problem solvers. Countless innovative tools, equipment and materials were born and bred right here in the USA, We decided to celebrate the stories of just a few of the many American trail blazers who created or improved products we’re very familiar with but probably don’t think twice about.
Want to see some tools that are a little more modern? Check out our story on the best new tools from 2018.
First portable electric drill
In 1910, Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker opened a small machine shop in Baltimore. They began building machinery—automated candy dippers, machines that made bottle caps and parts for other manufacturers. While sitting at Al Decker’s kitchen table, the two men thought about a lighter and easier-to-use industrial drill. (A Colt automatic pistol lay on the table—Colt was a customer.) Legend has it, they both looked at the gun and had a “eureka” moment. In 1917, they received a patent for the first 1/2-in. portable electric drill, equipped with a trigger and pistol grip, remarkably similar to the Colt. Factory workers loved the tool and often brought one home to use on their own houses. Black & Decker saw an opportunity and in 1946 introduced the world’s first portable drill for consumers. They sold their millionth drill five years later.
Maze nails: From freebie to industry leader
Samuel Nesbitt Maze entered the lumber business in 1848 and sold high-quality cedar shingles. Trouble was, the steel nails of the time didn’t last nearly as long as the shingles. So Samuel’s son Walter bought a used nail machine to produce zinc nails. At first, they gave these rust-proof nails away to customers who purchased the rest of their roofing materials at Maze Lumber. When the price of zinc skyrocketed in the early 1900s, Maze developed a system for dipping steel nails into vats of molten zinc. These ZINCLAD nails were even more popular with carpenters because they were harder than zinc and still rust resistant. Today, Maze has the world’s largest variety of specialty nails, and after 167 years, the lumberyard is still in business!
Maglite, ‘the Cadillac of flashlights’
Tony Maglica was born in New York during the Great Depression. He and his mother moved back to her native Croatia while he was a small child. Tony escaped the Communist-ruled country in 1950 and returned to the United States. He started a machine shop and earned a solid reputation for producing high-quality parts for the military and aerospace industries. In 1979, he introduced the Maglite flashlight made from aircraft aluminum. He marketed the flashlights to police and firefighters, who loved them. It turned out that the general public was also more than willing to pay a premium for “The Cadillac of Flashlights.” Mag Instruments has won many design awards over the years and currently produces dozens of different products, every one of them in the United States.
In 1886, George B DeArment, a blacksmith from Evansburg Pennsylvania, began forging farrier’s tools. A farrier is a craftsman who trims and shoes horses' hooves. DeArment went from town to town selling his nippers and clippers out of the back of his wagon. His business eventually took off and became known as the Champion Bolt & Clipper Company. The company added more tools to their line up including open-end wrenches. In 1904 they moved into a facility in Meadville, PA.
In 1933 Chief Engineer Howard Manning developed the idea of the multi-position, tongue and groove, slip-joint style pliers. They named this iconic tool a Channellock, and it became so popular that they changed the name of the company in order to better protect the valuable trademark.
Channellock is still owned and operated by the DeArment family, now on the fifth generation. In addition to slip-joint pliers, Channellock produces more than 130 different sizes and types of hand tools that are sold throughout the world. And the vast majority of tools they sell are still made in Meadville, Pennsylvania! Of course they have retired the wagon.
Lutron: Chalk one up for the little guy
Back in the 1950s, light-dimming switches were bulky commercial affairs that generated a lot of heat. Joel Spira, a physicist from New York City, knew he could build a better one. He worked in a small lab set up in a spare bedroom of the apartment where he lived with his wife, Ruth. In 1959, he was successful at creating a solid-state, rotary dimmer that used less energy, created less heat, and was small enough to fit in a standard electrical box. Almost as impressive, he was able to sell his product in a market dominated by giant manufacturers such as GE and Westinghouse. Joel and his wife incorporated Lutron in 1961. The company now holds more than 2,700 patents worldwide and builds more than 15,000 different products, many in the United States.
Briggs & Stratton: Started with a school project
Stephen Foster Briggs developed a six-cylinder, two-cycle engine as an engineering student at South Dakota State College. He was eager to bring his engine to market but did not have the resources. Briggs’s basketball coach introduced him to Harold Stratton, a successful grain merchant, and a partnership was formed. Unfortunately, Briggs’s engine
proved too costly to manufacture. Briggs & Stratton did have some success making parts for the fledgling auto industry, and even produced a small car named the Briggs & Stratton Flyer, which sold for less than $150. Eventually the company focused on small gasoline engines that powered lawn mowers, outdoor power equipment and even some early washing machines. Briggs & Stratton is currently the world’s largest manufacturer of air-cooled engines, building more than 9 million engines in the United States each year.
LENOX: That's a lot of blades!
In 1915 the American Saw Company was founded by John Swanson, Carl Ericson, and Carl Davis in Springfield, MA. On this date, 10 operators begin to manufacture hacksaw blades under the trade name LENOX. The blades initially had unique packaging and were known as “The Blades in the Plaid Box.” Today, LENOX manufacturers a wide variety of blade types and tool accessories, many made in America. LENOX blades have long been considered a gold standard. The 10-member team has grown to over 900 and LENOX now makes more than 34,000 miles of blades every year. Stack all those blades together, and they would circle the earth and then some! LENOX is currently part of the Stanley Black & Decker family of companies.
Klein Tools: Began with half a pair of pliers
In 1857, a telegraph lineman entered Mathias Klein’s shop in downtown Chicago with one-half of a side-cutting pliers and asked Mr. Klein to forge him a new half. That half was so good that the lineman returned looking for a replacement for the other half, and the first Klein lineman’s pliers was born.
The Klein Company profited from being one of the few forges to survive the Great Chicago Fire. Klein also grew along with the electrical and telecommunication industries, adding more than 100 varieties of pliers. But the original lineman’s pliers was so popular that generations of electricians called their pliers simply “Kleins.” Klein Tools Inc. is still going strong, and still owned and managed by members of the Klein family.
Bobcat skid steer loaders: Born in a turkey barn
Eddie Velo had a problem with turkeys, or rather with the mess they made in his barns. In 1956, Eddie asked Louis and Cyril Keller to build him a loader to help clean out his barns. The mechanical loaders available at the time were too big and unwieldy, so the Kellers built a compact three-wheeled loader and tested it out in Eddie’s barns. In 1960, the more familiar four-wheeled M400 was introduced, and skid loaders quickly went from poultry barns to practically everywhere. They’re called skid steers because the wheels don’t turn to steer. Instead, the wheels on each side rotate at different speeds, which causes a skid.
Graco: A chilly inspiration
Russell Gray figured there had to be a better way to lubricate a car on a cold Minnesota winter day. The freezing temperatures made hand-operated grease guns nearly impossible to use. So in 1926 he designed a grease gun powered by air pressure and sold it to service stations and others in the automotive industry. Gray Company Inc. quickly became a leader in the industrial fluid-handling business. The company produced its first paint pump in 1948 and developed the airless sprayer in 1957. This tool revolutionized exterior painting and made Graco a name familiar to every pro painter. Today Graco makes equipment for a wide range of industries. Its products pump fluids into cars, apply foam insulation to walls and dispense composite resins into molds—they even pump tomato sauce onto pizzas!
AMES Tools: Older than the U.S.
Captain John Ames started manufacturing shovels in West Bridgewater, MA, in 1774—that’s before the American Revolution! Shovels were in high demand in the young expanding country, and business was good. During the California gold rush, Ames shovels were so valuable that they were sometimes used as currency! President Lincoln personally asked Oakes Ames (son of Captain Ames) to supply shovels for the Union cause during the Civil War. During WWII, Ames produced armored tank plating, shell casings and 11 million of those familiar folding entrenching tools. In 1928, Ames shovels proved themselves invaluable on Richard E. Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole. Now, after 240 years, you’ll still find Ames shovels anywhere there are holes to dig.
HANDy Paint pail: Success with a simple solution
In 2001, Mark Bergman’s hand was tired of holding a paint container, so he rigged up a coffee can with a duct tape handle. It became the prototype for the HANDy Paint Pail.which is now used by pro painters and do-it-yourselfers nation-wide. Ingenuity in action!
Leatherman multi-tool: Inspired by a clunker
While traveling abroad, Tim Leatherman carried an old Boy Scout knife. He used it for everything from slicing bread to fixing the unreliable car he was traveling around in. The knife was handy, but he kept wishing he had a pair of pliers, so when he got home he designed his first multi-tool. Tim cut pieces of cardboard to make a pattern for the prototype, which he built in his garage. He shopped the tool around to prospective manufacturers without success, so he decided to manufacture them himself. His first sales came through a mail order magazine. He’d hoped to sell 4,000 “Pocket Survival Tools” that first year, but ended up filling 30,000 orders. The Leatherman Tool Group was born. It currently makes more than a million tools each year in Portland, OR.
Kohler: A tub built for hogs—and humans
In 1883, John Michael Kohler coated a large rectangular basin with an enamel powder he’d developed and heated it to 1,700 degrees F. He marketed his product to farmers as a water trough and hog scalder and to the regular consumer as a bathtub. The bathtub was a hit and became the first of thousands of bath products the Kohler Company would go on to manufacture. Today the Kohler Company headquarters is in Kohler, WI, and it has more than 50 manufacturing locations, employing more than 30,000 people worldwide. It’s one of America’s oldest and largest privately held companies.
Kreg Jigs: Pocket hole joinery for everyone
In 1986, Craig Sommerfeld was in the process of building his own home and wanted a way to attach the face frames to his kitchen cabinet carcasses without nailing through the front of them. Being a tool and die maker by trade, he designed and built his own single-hole pocket hole jig. This first “Craig’s Jig” was made from steel and aluminum, and it worked so well that his friends and coworkers encouraged him to build more. He changed the name to “Kreg” out of modesty and started demonstrating the tool at woodworking shows. The professional cabinet shop folks saw the benefit and were the first to buy the tool, but eventually, a whole lot of us weekend warriors wanted a strong and super-easy way to join wood. Today, Kreg Jig is synonymous with pocket hole joinery.
DAP: From sealing jars to sealing windows
Many a tradesperson have filled a gap in their window trim or caulked around a tub with some sort of DAP product. But their great, great grandparents may have used products from the same company to seal jelly jars. In 1865, Robert Dicks began producing sealing wax in his carriage house in Dayton, OH. Later, he teamed up with George Pontius, in time incorporating under the name Dicks-Pontius Company. Eventually, Robert’s son, John Dicks, saw an opportunity in home building and introduced putty and caulk to the company’s product lineup. After WWII, the Dicks-Pontius Company was poised to take advantage of the housing boom. In 1957, the Dicks-Pontius Company merged with Chicago-based Armstrong Company and the name was changed to Dicks-Armstrong-Pontius, “DAP” for short.
WD-40: 39 failures, one big success
In 1953, the Rocket Chemical Company of San Diego set out to create a product that could prevent rust on equipment in the aerospace industry. On the 40th try, it came up with WD-40 (Water Displacement, 40th attempt). It was first used by Convair to protect the outer skin of Atlas Missiles from rust and corrosion. In 1958, company founder Norm Larsen saw an opportunity to sell to the general public and introduced a retail version of WD-40 in aerosol cans. The public loved the product and still does. WD-40 can be found in four out of five homes in the United States, and the company currently manufactures more than 1 million cans of WD-40 per week.