Buchanan: Remembering a strong history of local innovationWritten by J. Matthew Buchanan | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Can you name three Toledo-based innovations that changed the world? I’ve asked this question of many fellow Toledoans over the years. Unfortunately, the answers haven’t varied much — people almost always respond quickly with general references to “Jeeps and glass.” Beyond that, they struggle. Naming a third always proves difficult, even for die-hard Toledoans.
This ought not be the case. Toledo has an amazing history of world-changing innovation that should be a source of pride for all of us. Residents of most cities similar in size to Toledo can point to a few companies that have introduced well-known products in the past, but we’ve got so much more. Several Toledo companies have literally created new industries right here in our hometown. Several others introduced innovations that radically and permanently changed the course of their industries. Toledo has played a critical role in the development of everything from bicycles to interchangeable mufflers and from fountain pens to medical devices.
After doing just a small bit of research on the issue, I’ve discovered numerous examples that make picking a third example less difficult. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Thanks in large part to a lightweight wire wheel made by Toledo-based Gendron Iron Wheel Company, Toledo was once known as the “Coventry of America” after Coventry, England, then the center of the British bicycle industry.
- In the early 1900s, Toledo became the center of the fountain pen industry when the Conklin Pen Manufacturing Co. introduced a unique self-filling pen; Mark Twain endorsed the famous Conklin Crescent Filler as his pen of choice.
- Three seemingly unrelated industries — medical devices, cosmetics and paint-spraying equipment — are connected by innovations in fluid dispersion from Toledo’s own DeVilbiss family.
Our innovation history even goes beyond the introduction of new products based on local inventions. Several Toledo companies imported new ideas from elsewhere, bringing growth and jobs with them. Universal joints, electric auto lights and the Etch-a-Sketch were invented elsewhere but were innovated in Toledo. Even our lawyers have innovated over the years — Owens Corning’s PINK was the first successful registration of a color as a trademark.
Considering this plethora of examples, how can it be that we’re so unfamiliar with our bright and extensive innovation history?
It’s simple: We’ve forgotten.
As a community, we’ve forgotten that Toledo once thrived on disruptive innovation rather than suffered its consequences. We’ve forgotten that we used to import new ideas and leverage them into new businesses, growth and jobs. We’ve forgotten that we were once viewed as the hometown of great inventors and industrialists who introduced world-changing products. We’ve forgotten the great business stories behind the names we’ve always known — DeVilbiss, Stranahan, Owens and many more.
We’re lucky, though, because we have that history. As a community we can, and should, reconnect with it and embrace it proudly. We should openly and actively celebrate the innovative spirit that fueled Toledo for decades. We should teach our innovation history to younger native Toledoans and communicate it proudly to new folks we welcome to the community. With a little effort, we could even use our proven innovation track record to direct our future. Embracing our history just might prove an important first step in repeating it.
J. Matthew Buchanan is a registered patent attorney, owner of Buchanan Nipper LLC and president and a CEO of Daystream Inc. in Perrysburg.