Making Things Better

Inventor Adolph Ronning’s creative genius improved life on and off the farm
Bill Vossler
February 2009
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Adair Kelley sits on the axle of the Farmall B as she did when she was a child, riding along to the fields when her father tested inventions.
Bill Vossler
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He invented John Deere Roll-O-Matic front wheels, patented two automobiles, a tractor truck, the 1-man power road grader used the world over, the jet-propeller popular on today’s watercraft, the stick control for the M46 General Patton tank, automatic automobile headlight dimmer and magnetic door catch – more than 400 patents, half of which were agriculture-related.

“That doesn’t tell the entire story either,” says Adair Ronning Kelley, Montevideo, Minn., daughter of the late Adolph Ronning, speaking of her father’s achievements. “Each patent had several ‘claims’ on it, and each claim is really a separate patent, so he easily had over a thousand patents altogether.”

Ronning was one of America’s truly great but little-known inventive geniuses. “He was always working on something,” says Adair, the last surviving family member. He won his first patent application (for a horse-drawn ensilage harvester) April 2, 1912, a month before he graduated from high school. Every week for the next 55 years, she says, he had a patent or patent pending in the U.S. Patent Office.

One of Adair’s early memories is watching her father at the turning lathe in his workshop, and seeing metal and wood curls drop off. “It was amazing that he allowed a 3-year-old girl to be there while he was working,” she marvels, “and still be able to concentrate on working on another patent.”

Starting young
Adolph Ronning, born near Boyd, Minn., in 1893, began inventing when he was very young. “He was a typical farm kid, figuring ‘There’s got to be an easier way to do this,’” Adair says. By the time he was 10, he and his brothers had built a tractor from spare parts.

As boys, Ronning and his brother Andrean began experimenting with creation of a horse-drawn ensilage harvester prototype, which they tested in the field, improved and patented in 1915. Later, he added an engine to the pull-type piece and put it on a motorized tractor: his first practical motorized ensilage harvester. When that proved successful, Adair says, he began converting other horse-drawn implements to tractor-mounted pieces.

Over the next few years, Ronning developed and patented a cultivator, plow, disc, harrow, PTO that ran mowers, and more – all for use with tractors. “His desire to make farm work easier propelled him into a better way of farming,” Adair says. “He envisioned a method to save work and time and money by having a machine replace horse power, with implements to adapt to the different aspects of farming. Each invention inspired the next.”

But machinery parts and patent applications are not free, and the money derived from Adolph’s parents’ farm was used to support the family. To finance his work, Ronning sold sadirons and catalog items, painted silos and gave violin lessons. He and his brother Lewis even shipped boxcars of frozen fish from Duluth, Minn., pulling off onto spurs in small Catholic communities along the way to sell their product.

Teacher, promoter
Ronning took normal school training in Madison, Minn., and then taught in a country school for two years. “People thought he would make a wonderful preacher, but he was always daydreaming,” Adair says, “thinking about his next invention. He worked at the drawing board late into the night, blocking everything else out, and the only way you could get his attention was to call out that supper was ready.”

He was a natural promoter. He gave field demonstrations at his parents’ Boyd, Minn., farm to introduce his machines to people and sell stock in the company. “And after he began manufacturing the ensilage harvesters,” Adair says, “Dad took the harvester around on a railroad flatcar, showing it at county and state fairs in Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Iowa, even Ohio, and taking orders.”

A few years later, Ronning’s bride, Hildur, helped with the fair sales. “She’d get up on the tractor in her long dress and summery wide-brimmed hat and drive it around on the lot,” Adair says. “It attracted such enormous crowds that other exhibitors cringed. People had to see this woman driving this huge machine. They said, ‘If she can drive it, so can we, so we’ve got to get one.’ That was his early advertising. The machines had to be paid for in advance: That’s how he got his working capital.”

During that time Ronning tried to sell his newly invented 1-man power grader. He found little enthusiasm from manufacturers. Swamped with orders for horse-drawn graders, they thought it would be foolish to retool. So Ronning licensed his grader to 22 companies, including one in England. “That’s why all those similar-looking graders appeared about the same time,” Adair says.

The Farmall contract
Late in 1925, Ronning licensed his tractor-powered ensilage harvester and 26 other patents (including a disc, planter and corn picker) to International Harvester Co., which produced the harvester from 1926 to 1942. IHC sold more than 1,000 Ronning McCormick-Deering ensilage harvesters.

“IHC came up with the Farmall name,” Adair says, “with the idea that they would be making the Farmall tractor and all of Dad’s implements would be attached to it. With one tractor and the attached implements, a farmer could ‘farm all,’ creating horseless farming.”

Income from the Farmall contract allowed Ronning to concentrate on inventing, instead of running U.S. Ensilage Harvester Co. (later Ronning Machinery Co.) and subsidiary Morgan Harvester Co. (in conjunction with financier J.P. Morgan’s nephew). Ronning also formed Patents Holding Co. to handle licensing and fees. Ronning Machinery Co. paid dividends to stockholders from the royalties.

The big one that got away
IHC missed out on one significant Ronning patent. Ronning developed what would become the Roll-O-Matic concept on his farm. “He made 20 units and gave them to area farmers to use in their fields,” Adair says. “At the end of a year, he took them back to study wear and breakage. He redesigned them, returned them to farmers, and it went back and forth until the concept was perfected.”

The invention allowed the tractor’s front end to “walk” over rocks or potholes with the wheels moving up or down as needed, automatically equalizing the load, making for smoother operation and easier steering.

However, Adair says, IHC officials told Ronning the No. 1 tractor company in the world didn’t need gadgets to sell tractors. “Dad said he would take it to Deere & Co., and they said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ So he took the next train to Waterloo,” she says. “Deere officials visited the farm to see a demonstration, and within a week signed an exclusive licensing contract to use the mechanism [which they introduced in 1947 as the Roll-O-Matic] on their row-crop tractors. The rest is history.”

Ronning’s inventive genius didn’t stop at the farm. Practically every U.S. household has had some form of Ronning’s inventions, as he invented or improved the steam iron, magnetic door catch, gas-blocking sewer drain, window stays, easily steered wheelbarrow, power saw, hose gasket and more. His versatility was limitless.

Joining the war effort
A veteran of World War I, Ronning served as a consultant to U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, a voluntary role he performed at no pay. Adair remembers clearly her father’s commitment to the cause: “He said, ‘If I can make things better for the soldiers who are giving their lives, I’m going to do it.’” His wartime innovations included the stick control for the M46 Patton tank, aircraft landing gear, “knee action” hubs allowing vehicles to “float” over uneven or sandy terrain, and controls for motor torpedo boats and landing craft.

He also proposed a propulsion system that would automatically control pitch and roll on aircraft carriers, battleships and other ships; sonic detonators to destroy magnetic mines; and underwater mines. Those concepts were not developed, but Ronning remained actively engaged in wartime work.

“One time he had to leave a turkey dinner and go to the airport because a bomber had landed with a bomb rack that didn’t work, and he had to go fix it,” Adair recalls. “All his work showed his dedication to his country, his patriotism and his love for his fellow man. He was never out to make a name for himself. He just wanted to make things work better.”

For his efforts, he was awarded a citation for work done by a civilian, one of about two dozen such citations awarded from thousands of nominations.

Always the inventor
Ronning’s creative genius never slowed. Hospitalized during his final days, he continued to work on new inventions, asking Adair to draw for him. Ronning died at age 89 in 1982, ending a life marked by industrious fortitude, innovation, generosity and caring. “He never did things for personal notoriety,” Adair says. “He worked on his patents and inventions because he wanted to make things better.” FC

Read about Adolph Ronning's ensilage harvester: “Ronning Harvester is One of a Kind.”

For more information: Adair Kelly, 4150 Highway 212, Montevideo, MN 56265; (320) 269-8775.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail:  bvossler@juno.com .


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