8 Things You Didn’t Know Were Invented In Iowa

Eskimo pie/Shutterstock photo

Iowa is famous for its charming small towns and farms, home to beautiful rolling hills and picturesque prairies. But Iowa is also home to a strong entrepreneurial spirit, which we find both in the farms and fields and in cities. Innovative Iowans have given us everything from trampolines and Pinterest to enjoy in our off hours, to tractors and other technology that fuels our careers.

Here are a few of the many great inventions to come out of the state.

  1. Trampolines

A favorite pastime for kids and adults alike, jumping on a trampoline is gravity-defying fun, and we can thank Iowa for all our trampoline memories! Cedar Rapids native George F. Nissen was the child of circus performers and had a love of tumbling and acrobatics. He wanted to share that joy with everyone and created his first trampoline prototype in 1931. By 1940 he was making and selling them full-time, eventually opening a factory in 1947. He continued to make trampolines in the factory until the 1980s, when he sold the business. 

  1. The Gas-Powered Tractor

Froelich Tractor Replica. Photo courtesy of Travel Iowa

The history of the gasoline-powered tractor goes back further than you might expect. In 1892, farmer John Froelich had an idea for a more efficient tractor engine. At the time, steam-powered threshers were common, but Froelich felt gasoline would make quicker work of the harvest. Working with blacksmith Will Mann, they built a simple one-cylinder engine to fuel their work. They immediately generated interest from businessmen, but had trouble getting the tractor itself into production. It would take years of experiments to perfect it, but the company founded on his invention would eventually sell its gas-powered tractors to farmers far and wide. 

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

  1. Vending Machines

In the 1930s, F.A. Wittern of Des Moines had a dream of building a machine that was capable of returning change to customers. His company, Hawkeye Novelty, began with machines that dispensed peanuts, before changing to FAWN (an acronym of his initials) and expanding its offerings in the 1940s. Over the years, his simple peanut-dispensing machine morphed into vending machines of all types, from cigarettes and beverages to snacks and merchandising equipment. The company, though now rebranded, continues to make vending machines in Iowa today. 

  1. Eskimo Pies

Shutterstock photo

Many of us have fond memories of enjoying an Eskimo Pie on a hot summer’s day, but did you know that we can thank an Iowa immigrant for these warm-weather treats? In 1920, in the small town of Onawa, Dutch emigrant Christian Kent Nelson worked as a schoolteacher and operated an ice cream parlor in the summer. One day, a customer’s indecision fueled Nelson’s innovation. A young boy came in and, torn between chocolate and ice cream, ended up having to choose just one. Nelson wondered why the two couldn’t be put together, so he began testing recipes. The Eskimo Pie was born, and many happy summer memories along with it. 

The frozen ready-to-eat confection revolutionized the dessert and frozen-food industries by introducing manufacturers to a world of possibilities. Many of the chocolate-covered frozen desserts we enjoy today can trace their roots back to this snack. 

  1. Sliced Bread

Otto Frederick Rodwedder was born in Davenport, Iowa, and while he was a jeweler during the day, his real passion lay in invention, and he would spend his evenings tinkering and building. Eventually, he created a promising prototype of an automatic bread slicer and sold his jewelry stores to fund its production. Tragedy struck in 1917, however, and a fire took out his blueprints and prototypes, setting him back years. He did eventually invent and market the bread slicer, though, and while he lived in Missouri at the time, Iowans often claim the invention because of his strong roots in the state. Thanks to Rodwedder, we can purchase a wide variety of sliced bread at the grocery store today. 

  1. The Computer

Clifford Berry working on the ABC computer/University archive, Iowa State University Library

The invention of computers has a long, multifaceted history, but one important part of that history took place at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. There, between 1939 and 1942, the first digital electronic computer was produced by professor John Vincent Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry. Though both moved on to other projects during World War II, their innovation laid the groundwork for the development of computers today. 

  1. Pinterest

Ben Silbermann, who was raised in Des Moines, invented Pinterest on Thanksgiving Day 2009. Before Pinterest, we didn’t really have an easy way to make online bulletin boards, often called mood or vision boards, highlighting different images, goals and ideas. Pinterest allowed us to group links, pictures, and more by category so they were easily findable. While it took the site a while to take off, once people found it, it was a huge hit, and remains an important part of our online culture to this day. 

8. The Helicopter

Iowan August Werner dreamed of being the first person to create an aircraft that could carry the weight of a pilot and a passenger. He began working on his plans in secret, before he and a passenger took off on July 4, 1886. While his helicopter did not fly more than a few feet in the air before crashing, he laid the groundwork for successful helicopter design in the future—and he did so 17 years before the Wright brothers first flew in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina!


by Julia Skinner

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

3 Comments on "8 Things You Didn’t Know Were Invented In Iowa"

  • Good info! Was a little surprised ISL didn’t have a post-mortem on the Iowa election results. GOP swept all US Congressional seats along with a landslide gubernatorial election. POTUS is 80 years old and we need to start finding quality candidates and focused messaging for the middle class for’24.

  • Anthrax was invented at ISU animal research lab but I don’t know what year. The original anthrax is still kept frozen there. They use it to compare any new strain of anthrax developed in the world so they can compare samples to determine its age and its variants etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *