Making Things Better

Inventor Adolph Ronning’s creative genius improved life on and off the farm

| February 2009

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.