Suburbs Hold Place in History as Birthplace of Silos, Twinkies

By Olmstead, Rob | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Suburbs Hold Place in History as Birthplace of Silos, Twinkies


Olmstead, Rob, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Rob Olmstead Daily Herald Staff Writer

Chicago is famous for its inventions: the first controlled nuclear reaction, deep-dish pizza and dead voters among them.

But what many people don't realize is that the suburbs surrounding Chicago have their fair share of inventions, too, or have served as the home of inventors.

A bevy of ingenious suburban inventors turned their intellects to everything from the practical, close-to-home need for storing grain on farms without spoiling to measuring the far-flung stars and their energy transmissions.

Suburban inventors have done everything from helping to invent horrific war machines used to beat Hitler to devising secret pastes for repairing delicate, porcelain works of art.

The story of suburban inventors is not always triumphant. Sometimes, they were a day late and a dollar short. To be sure, there were some wackos. Other times, they were just unrealistic dreamers whose patents never amounted to much.

The McHenry County Historical Society in Union has dozens of newspaper clippings promoting proud inventors and their creations, which, to put it politely, did not go on to become industry standards. A Harvard paper relayed news of one such "revolutionary" invention on Aug. 17, 1899:

"M. McMahon, of Harvard, has invented a pillow sham holder that is far ahead of anything of the kind on the market, and it is thought will make him a fortune."

Thought by whom, the paper does not say.

Here's a sampling of some suburban inventions and inventors:

Wheaton: Grote Reber, born in 1911, put his Armour Institute education to good use. According to Jean Moore's "Wheaton, Illinois: A Pictorial History," the curious radio station engineer began studying strange sounds he sometimes encountered in radio transmissions. Working from another engineer's theory that the radio static came from deep space, Reber designed and constructed the first radio telescope outside his parents' home on Seminary Street in Wheaton to study the static. The supporting framework alone was 31 feet high, and school children from the Longfellow school used to climb on it. Reber's dish now stands in Green Bank, W.Va., at the U.S. Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Crystal Lake: Crystal Lake resident Joe Erwood designed a record-changer and other audio equipment while working at his company in Chicago with his brother John. But perhaps his most important work was his contribution to the VT or proximity fuse, which helped the Allies win World War II. Before the proximity fuse, bombs and anti-aircraft munitions exploded only when they physically hit a target, or were exploded by time fuses. Neither method did much for raising the percentage of bombs that hit their targets or did significant damage. But the proximity fuse used radio waves to measure distance from a target and cause the explosive to detonate near the target - a direct hit was no longer required.

"They were a whole lot more dangerous," said Nancy Fike, curator of the McHenry County Museum, which safeguards a U.S. Military report on the development of the fuse. The Erwoods, as part of a national effort, designed many of the prototypes during development and testing of the fuse. …

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