Inventors’ Stories

Mark L. Johnson / February 2018

In AWCI’s 100 years, history is chock full of some amazing inventors. This month I’d like to share my favorite inventor stories with you.
    
How did I pick my favorites? I’m a storyteller, so I like a good story. But I also like to learn something, so I’m interested in stories with good business lessons, too.

Tried to “Steel” the Show
Take Chicago architect Howard T. Fisher. To prepare for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Fisher designed a “home of the future.” He took apart Pullman railroad cars, studied them and then modeled his steel homes after the railroad cars’ structural designs. His idea involved framing houses with light-gauge steel walls in a short period of time. Unfortunately, Fisher’s company went bankrupt. America wasn’t ready for metal-framed homes.
    
The lesson? Fisher was onto something. It was just ahead of its time and perhaps the wrong market. Commercial light-gauge metal framing would take off—but not for another 20 to 25 years.

Group Think Is Awesome
In the mid-1950s, the Milcor Division of Inland Steel Products (later renamed Inryco), introduced steel studs with half-inch flanges. Other manufacturers entered the market with light-gauge steel studs. In 1966, Milcor launched structural steel studs.
    
This was a milestone. But, in my opinion, Milcorp’s “light bulb” moment came in 1968 when the company added a technical services group of engineers and detailers to work on load-bearing systems. Some notable engineers of that group include Pat Ford, Randy Frame, John Matsen, Tom Schermerhorn, Don Schroeder and Jim Williams. The late John Matsen designed a 40-story tower, the Matsen Tower, made entirely of structural cold-formed steel. The Matsen Tower was never built, but it could be.
    
The lesson? Who thought in the 1960s that cold-formed steel had a future in load-bearing framing? Milcorp (Inryco) had a hunch. It’s good to run on hunches. They often pay off.

Mother of Invention
In the mid-1950s, Acousti Engineering, Jacksonville, Fla., ordered 10,000 lineal feet of 5/8-inch channel trim from Chicago Metallic Corp. for its residential projects. Turnkey suspended grid systems didn’t exist back then, so Acousti Engineering improvised. With the channel trim product, Acousti created a grid “to hold up acoustical ceilings inside houses,” says the Chicago Tribune. The suspended ceiling had arrived. Chicago Metallic (now part of Rockfon) developed this new market niche. In 1957, the company introduced the “first ceiling suspension system for commercial and residential markets,” says Rockfon literature.
    
The lesson? Necessity is the mother of invention, right? In the 1950s, a contractor had a need and invented a workable solution with materials he had at hand.

Garage Inventor
John “Brad” Wagner began selling self-piercing screws from his garage in Walnut Creek, Calif., in 1967. The engineer and graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute wanted to improve upon the screw designs. In 1970, he introduced the Grabber. Other screws were on the market, but Wagner invented a screw with coarse threads that gave it a superior grip for drywall.
    
Then, in 1972, he invented the Grabber Streaker (patented in 1976), which had twin lead coarse threads and a sharp 23-degree point. AWCI’s Construction Dimensions called the Grabber Streaker “the accepted drywall screw.” You might remember the advertising campaign—a Grabber drywall screw that has impaled a streaker.
    
What I like about this story is Wagner’s persistence to get something right. I also like garage startup stories. I think we all do.

What’s Next?
Who is inventing something today? What new materials are in the pipeline? Who is turning a robot into an applicator? Who is programming augmented realty headsets for his panel fabrication factory? Hey! Some of those inventions are already underway.  

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about inventors, history, the future and #AWCI100. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.