“Your Uncle Emil had a patent,” Aunt Anna told me when I was a boy, half a century ago. She said it with the quiet pride of a Norwegian American. We were standing in the kitchen of our long-deceased ancestor Albert Hanson’s farmstead near Viroqua, Wisconsin. She washed, I dried. I liked to be around my great-aunt Anna because she was kind, smart, and pretty. Her brother Emil, my great-uncle, lived in the faraway city of Milwaukee.1
The patented invention had something to do with separating cream from milk. That was all Anna knew. Her mention of Emil and his patent registered with me. Another time, while looking at a formal photographic family portrait taken in 1916, Anna told me I looked like Emil. Maybe so.
How did I happen to become a patent attorney? As I think back on it, Aunt Anna might have planted the seed. It also traced back to my youth on a dairy farm near Monroe, Wisconsin, where resourcefulness and hard work are necessities. A member of the Sputnik generation, I was interested in science and engineering and, at the same time, in law and business. Patent law is at the intersection of those fields.
Vesterheim’s upcoming exhibition Innovators and Inventors has prompted me to investigate the family lore about my great-uncle Emil Hanson, the inventor. This history might otherwise have been lost for all practical purposes.
This article is written now to give voice to Emil Hanson and his accomplishments, particularly his fully detailed patents, in the context of his life as a Norwegian American.
Emil Hanson, His Origins and Legacy
Emil Hanson’s father, my great-grandfather, Albert Hanson (1859-1938), came from a farm called Skaalbones (skull bones) near Bodø, Norway. Bodø is north of the Arctic Circle, a land of summer sun and winter darkness, where the Gulf Stream provides a tenuous lease on life. The Norwegian Sea is always cold, yet it never freezes, and the Norwegians go to sea year-round. The Norwegians, especially along the rocky, fjord-lined, west coast, traditionally were farmers and sea people. Potatoes came from the land, fish from the sea. Livestock provided meat, dairy products, and eggs.
Every January, a young Albert, his brothers, and their father Hans Benoni Jakobson Skaalbones (1813-1874), sailed and rowed a small wooden Nordland boat across the Norwegian Sea, travelling some 60 miles to the Lofoten Islands. There they would stay for a couple of months and fish for the cod that came down from the Barents Sea to spawn. It’s a world-famous cod fishery. The sea breezes are good for drying fish – important in the centuries before efficient refrigeration and rapid shipping – on open A-frame structures. It’s the place that gave us lutefisk, for better or worse. The cod livers were pressed for healthful, if distasteful, cod liver oil.2
Though fishing and farming were in the blood of Albert’s ancestors, education also was emphasized. Albert’s great-grandfather Bjørn Jakobson Skaalbones (1737-1803) was the first schoolteacher in Bodø, and Bjørn’s son (Albert’s grandfather) Jakob Bjørnson Skaalbones (1781-1862) was a schoolteacher for 36 years. It followed that Albert Hanson was an educated man.
Albert was one of the youngest of ten children, and the land couldn’t support all of them. As was typical of younger sons, Albert had to look for greener pastures. Accordingly, in 1877 at the age of 18, Albert boarded a ship bound for America. As an immigrant, he worked through the Wisconsin winters as a lumberjack, and he farmed from spring to fall. On January 4, 1888, Albert Hanson married Martha Hage, who had emigrated from Gudbrandsdal, Norway, with her family when she was nine months old. The Albert Hanson farm was several miles west of Viroqua, and the nearby town of Westby was so predominantly Norwegian that well into the twentieth century you needed to speak Norwegian to do business.3
My great-uncle Emil Hanson was born on August 3, 1891 and was the third of Albert’s 11 children. Emil grew up on the farm, where he learned many practical skills, including how to use tools and how to work on machinery. This early learning would inform many of his inventions.
Emil Hanson married Margarete Williams (born near Bodø, Norway) in Galena, Illinois, in 1916. In the 1920s, Emil owned and operated a garage and dealership in Viroqua. His skill and drive prompted him to invent new and improved devices. After the Great Crash of 1929 and other business disturbances, Emil and family moved to Milwaukee. Emil worked for automobile dealerships and companies including Allen-Bradley. He also worked on perfecting, patenting, and commercializing his own inventions.
In the spring of 2019, I called my second cousin, Emil’s grandson Terry Tarillion to inquire about Emil’s patents. Cousin Terry also showed me around Emil’s shop, which Terry faithfully installed in his own basement. Terry told me that he learned all about machinery, small engines, electricity, welding, and the like from Emil, who apparently had no post-high-school education, but learned “on the job” and through diligent study and application of scientific, mechanical, and electrical principles to real-world problems and solutions.
Now that I am a patent attorney—many years after I briefly met Emil when I was a youth—I am in a better position to understand Emil’s patented inventions and related files. I even recognize the names of the patent attorneys and firms that represented Emil. I also have seen something of what it takes to go from an idea—a mere concept—to a more fully fleshed-out patentable invention. Based on my 35 years of practicing patent law, I would estimate that fewer than 1 out of 10 people, maybe 1 out of 100, who come up with an “idea,” ever follow through to reduce the idea to practice, obtain a patent, and put the new improved product into production and sales. From this perspective, Emil succeeded far more than most, even if he never made a fortune from any of his patented inventions.
Emil Hanson’s Work Gave Him Problems to Solve—and That’s a Good Thing
Emil Hanson and his several brothers and sisters surely worked hard growing up on the farm, first with horses, and also with machinery and farm implements, soon to include newfangled tractors. The farm was a dairy farm, with the usual variety of livestock, including chickens, producing eggs that could be sold for cash. They grew wheat, a major crop in Vernon County at that time, and other crops including corn and oats. They had fields of clover for pasture and hay to feed the cows. Tobacco, a variety used for cigar wrappers, was a cash crop that required back-breaking labor, and it gave rise to the need for two large, multistory, brick tobacco warehouses that still stand in Viroqua.4
Emil apparently was good with machinery, hardworking, and ambitious, and in the usual course of farm families with several children, he made his way from the farm into the town of Viroqua, where he started a garage, which, according to his letterhead, sold Paige and Chevrolet automobiles and Cletrac tractors. Paige was a luxury brand, and Cletrac produced some good tractors.
Emil’s work with automobiles would lead to three patented inventions, and his involvement in dairy farming would lead to yet another patented invention. The most likely people to succeed in inventing are those who are working in fields in which they have some knowledge and experience. In the patent field, we call this baseline the “ordinary skill in the art.” Inventors are said to have above ordinary skill: They apply known technology and they create new devices and methods to solve problems and fill needs. Few inventors have the patience and diligence to make their ideas work in the real world—in patent language, a “reduction to practice”—let alone to succeed in patenting them, putting them into production, and achieving some level of sales.
Emil’s First Problem: The Need for an Adjustable Wrench and Pliers
Imagine Emil’s world one hundred years ago, in 1920. He ran a garage, working on cars and tractors. As every mechanic knows, you never have the right size wrench when you need it. If you’re holding a wrench, you might find that you need a pliers, and vice-versa. As for pliers, they worked only through the application of force, and it was difficult to moderate the force applied to the object, which, if fragile, could be broken. These were problems that confronted mechanics at that time.
In 1923, U.S. Patent 1,459,531 was issued to Emil Hanson, then of Viroqua, Wisconsin, for a Combination Tool. The patented tool is a combination of an adjustable wrench at one end and adjustable pliers at the other end. It works with an ingenious ratchet mechanism that allows either end—wrench or pliers—to be adjusted to whatever span desired. It could be made several sizes—some with long handles and large heads, others with short handles and small heads. Emil licensed the invention to U.S. Die Casting, a manufacturer of tools, and the Hanson combination tool seems to have had some success in the marketplace.
Thanks to my cousin Terry Tarillion, grandson of Emil Hanson, I have in my possession one of Emil’s patented combination tools. It still seems to work just fine. The description and drawings in the patent helped me understand how to use the tool. That’s one of the central purposes of a patent—to make it known how to make and use the patented invention.5 The combination tool was made in a variety of sizes, and Emil had big hopes for it, providing in a licensing arrangement that royalties would reduce to a penny apiece once sales exceeded 20,000 units. Emil also had the foresight to provide in the licensing agreement that if the manufacturer failed to achieve a certain level of sales within the first few years of the agreement, the patent would be assigned back to Emil.
In the end, the patented invention did not succeed as well as the parties hoped, and it appears that Emil exercised his option to regain the patent—though the combination tool still did not sell in any large numbers.
It is the nature of technologies and patents to compete in the marketplace. Here, the Crescent brand adjustable wrench was introduced a decade before Emil’s combination tool. Crescent would have been difficult to displace from its position as the market leader for adjustable wrenches. Moreover, the Channellock pliers, with a tongue-and-groove, slip-joint design, was invented in 1932 and patented in 1934. It filled the need for an adjustable pliers, and it did so soon after the introduction of Emil’s patented combination tool.
In October 1929, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression ensued. Emil Hanson lost everything, and the early 1930s found him in Milwaukee, where there was more industry and economic opportunity, and where he continued his inventive activity.
Emil’s Second Problem: Dirt and Gravel Roads Without an Air Cleaner
In the first decades of the 1900s, many roads were dirt or gravel. They were dusty. Dust is bad for engine performance, leading to frequent overhauls or outright replacements of engines. The earliest air cleaners were water baths. They worked by spraying air with water, basically knocking the dust out of the air, trapping it in water, and dripping the dusty water out onto the ground. This was a crude, inefficient operation.
Emil invented an improved air cleaner, also based on the water bath principle, but offering a circuitous path that provided greater efficiency. Thereafter, in 1933, U.S. Patent 1,899,504 for Air Washers and Humidifiers was issued to Emil.
As with his other patented inventions, Emil assigned the ’504 patent to a manufacturer, and some sales of the patented device were made. But again, the sales petered out, due to competition, especially with the 1940s introduction of oil bath air cleaners, which offered better filtering performance. Also, many roads were being paved, and this reduced the need for air filtration. Emil successfully sued the manufacturer to void the assignment agreement, but even with the patent back in hand, he did no better trying to sell the air washer on his own. In the end, Emil’s patented air washer lost out to the pleated paper filter, which became the nearly exclusive choice for automobile engine air cleaners in the early 1960s.
Between 1933 and 1967, there was a gap in Uncle Emil’s surviving communications with the Patent Office.6 He was busy supporting Margarete in raising a family. Emil and his family made regular trips to the Viroqua homestead for Hanson family reunions. Even while attending to work and family obligations, Emil’s mind and his home shop remained active.
Emil’s Support for National Defense
During the lead-up and entry of the U.S. into World War II, the nation looked to individual inventors to provide ideas and technology that might be useful for the war effort. The National Inventors Council entertained suggestions, including an invention of “frequency hopping” (to avoid enemy interference with a ship’s torpedoes) by the glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr.
As early as 1940, Emil submitted his own ideas for national defense with sketches, including ways to detect and combat enemy sharpshooters. The detection, and the determination of the proper orientation for response, was to be based on a rifle to be trained on the flash of enemy fire. The combat was to be based on large reflectors to concentrate the energy of the sun and aim it at the enemy. Of course, he also couldn’t fail to mention his patented Air Washers and Humidifiers and their potential for use in Army vehicles travelling in rough terrain. Last but not least, Emil offered a system for drying and stretching wet combat boots. The National Inventors Council and the National Defense Committee responded politely if unenthusiastically.
Emil Tackles the Problem of Adulterated Milk
Emil’s home state, Wisconsin, will always be known as “America’s Dairyland.” Dairy is a huge industry, accounting today for $400 billion in worldwide production each year. Much of the technology underlying the dairy industry was developed in Wisconsin, dealing with questions of testing, quality, consumer safety, and butterfat. In 1890, a year before Emil Hanson was born, Professor Babcock of the University of Wisconsin developed a test for butterfat. It required test tubes, sulfuric acid, and a centrifuge. The test was fine for a laboratory but beyond the capabilities of most farmers.
Emil looked for a better, simpler way to test for butterfat. As often happens, he set out to solve one problem and ended up solving two others, namely, the need to test milk for added water and/or deficiencies due to a disease called mastitis.
Milk is sold by weight, and an unscrupulous farmer could be tempted to add water to increase the amount of the monthly milk check. Every dairy and every cheese factory has dealt with this serious yet difficult-to-detect problem.
Mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udder, is the most serious disease known in dairy cattle, costing the U.S. dairy industry about $2 billion per year. Affected milk cannot legally be sold; thus, there is a need to detect mastitis in milk.
In the 1930s, Emil Hanson began experimenting with electrical conductivity of milk. Trying to improve on the Babcock butterfat test, he found instead that electrical conductivity could detect added water and mastitis. He designed and built an instrument and tested it on several hundred cows in dozens of dairy herds. He met with dairy science experts at the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University to calibrate his new device. He licensed the technology first to Simplicity, of Port Washington, Wisconsin, but they were unable to launch the device successfully, perhaps in part because it relied on vacuum tubes and was rather large and unwieldy.
In the 1960s, Emil Hanson took up the subject of the milk tester again. This time he used newly developed transistors in the place of vacuum tubes. On an application filed in June 1967, U.S. Patent 3,512,080 was issued in 1970 to Emil Hanson for an electrical conductivity tester for milk with a movable electrode for temperature compensation. Emil assigned this patent to Dairy Equipment Company of Madison. They sold about 100 units for about $100 apiece.
Ultimately, modern dairy testing instruments rely on a combination of indicators including a highly sensitive cryometer that quickly measures the freezing point of milk to within a few tenths of a degree. This technology would have been unimaginable in Emil’s day.
Emil Supports Automobile Safety
When driving a car with an automatic transmission, one should use only the right foot for both the accelerator and brake pedals to avoid braking and accelerating at the same time. But the fact is that many drivers do use their right foot on the accelerator and their left foot on the brake. This causes two problems. First, as Emil discovered, it wears out brake pads prematurely, which is expensive and wasteful. Second, a panicked driver sometimes slams on both the brake and the accelerator, which, until the advent of recent software innovations, caused unintended acceleration and can be extremely dangerous.
On an application filed in June 1968, U.S. Patent 3,487,898 was issued in 1970 to Emil Hanson for Vehicle Brake and Accelerator Controls. The controls were intended to prevent drivers from simultaneously applying both the brake and the accelerator. The patented system also offered a mechanical form of cruise control and a speed governor. Emil took measurements to fit the device into many American car makes and models. He tested it in his own car for two years.
He wrote to Ford, GM, his Congressman, the National Highway Safety Administration, and the National Inventors Council, but his patented invention never made its way into commercial production. Many years later, the brake/accelerator problem would be solved with computers and a software module called the “brake-throttle override.”
Between 1969 and 1971, Emil tried the services of two invention promotion firms. In each case he quickly realized, before he got too far into it, that he would do better on his own in marketing his newest patented inventions. He ended the promotional relationships before investing much money in them, writing to one with the postscript “better luck next time.”
From his youth as a Norwegian-American farm boy, Emil Hanson worked throughout his long life to perfect, patent, and commercialize his inventions. He conveyed that knowledge and enthusiasm to everyone around him, including his grandchildren, who would go on to succeed in their own lives and careers. His place in history is secured by the issuance of four U.S. patents naming him as the inventor.
Beem’s Tips for Today’s Inventors
- Many valuable inventions are seemingly minor improvements made by people working in their own field to solve customers’ problems and fill their needs.
- The most fertile ground for inventive success is the business you know and in which you work to improve on existing products for the benefit of your customers. For example, if you’re in the business of making agricultural equipment, you may wish to invent better farm implements. Medical professionals may wish to invent an improved medical device.
- If you expect to sell $100,000 or more of the new, improved product, you may wish to consider investing the several thousand dollars typically required to patent it, which requires acting quickly, preferably with the assistance of a patent attorney, to avoid statutory bars and other pitfalls.
- The successful inventor needs more than an idea and a wish—it takes diligence to reduce a concept to practice, to patent it, and to commercialize it.
- Avoid invention promotion firms (if they charge a fee to promote your invention, that’s what they are, regardless of what they call themselves.) You and your closest associates are likely to be the best spokespersons for your invention.
- If your patent makes money, that’s great. If not, you’ll have a place in history as the recipient of a patent.
This article was first published in the magazine, Vesterheim, Vol. 18, No.2, 2020 – Innovators and Inventors. Check vesterheim.org for information on how to become a Vesterheim member and receive future Vesterheim magazines.
Credit to Sandy Coggeshall and Donald Berg for the Hanson/Williams genealogy. Thanks to Terry and Michael Tarillion for insights, information, documents, and Emil’s patents. Thanks to Rebecca Beem for editing suggestions.
1Aunt Anna was the author’s great-aunt Anna Hanson Lepke (1899-1985).
2For more on cod, see Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, 1998.
3Westby and Norwegian language, from conversation between the author and Myron “Mike” Lepke.
4Mike Lepke told the author that Oscar Swenson (1882-1956), the author’s grandfather and Emil Hanson’s brother-in-law, had an important job as manager of one of the tobacco warehouses.
5A patent is required to include a detailed written description sufficient to enable a skilled person to practice the claimed invention. It also must include drawings if it is possible for the invention to be drawn.
6Communications with the USPTO are confidential unless and until a patent issues, or, in recent years, until a patent application is published. Thus, unless the inventor or others keep copies of correspondence, there generally is no way to tell if someone has filed a patent application that has not proceeded to that stage.