Being a pretty big state, Nebraska has a lot of room for big ideas. These are the inventions that have made an impact on the nation or the world…and they were all born right here in Nebraska.
We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life as we all practice social and physical distancing. While we’re continuing to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, we don’t expect or encourage you to go check them out immediately. We believe that supporting local attractions is important now more than ever and we hope our articles inspire your future adventures! And on that note, please nominate your favorite local business that could use some love right now:
1) The Reuben Sandwich
The birthplace of the Reuben is hotly contested by some, but it's widely believed to have been invented at Omaha's Blackstone Hotel by Reuben Kulakofsky. In any case, it first appeared on the menu of one of the Blackstone's restaurants in 1925.
2) Vise Grip Locking Pliers
William Petersen, a blacksmith in DeWitt, NE, came up with the idea for locking pliers in the early 1920s. He was granted a patent for his invention, which he named Vise-Grip, in 1924. He originally sold the pliers from the trunk of his car, but later formed a company and began manufacturing Vice-Grips in DeWitt in 1938. The company was acquired by IRWIN Tools in 1993.
3) SAFER Barrier
The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier was developed from 1998 to 2002 at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at UNL. Dr. Dean Sicking led a team of engineers to create the race track safety wall that lowers the danger to drivers in the event of a crash. The system is used today on IndyCar and NASCAR circuit tracks.
4) Butter Brickle Ice Cream
Delicious butter brickle ice cream is another treat we can credit to the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha.
5) Frozen TV Dinners
In the 1950s, Swanson answered the prayers of every busy family by creating a meal that was quick to prepare and came in single portions. Several other frozen dinner variants had already been developed by other companies, but it was Omaha-based Swanson that developed the idea on a nationwide level. It's widely assumed that the term "TV dinner" came from families eating the frozen meals in front of the television at dinner time. However, food historians say that the name came from the tray's original shape which resembled a 1950s television with a larger compartment (resembling the screen) on one side and two smaller compartments (resembling the speaker and controls) on the other. Some think that Swanson owes this success to their use of the term "TV Dinner," since national excitement about television was high at the time.
Those distinctive yellow and black booklets that got so many of us through high school and college weren't exactly invented in Nebraska, but they began their American life in Lincoln. In 1958 Cliff Hillegass was working at Nebraska Book Co. when he met a Canadian man who published study guides. Hillegass acquired the American rights to the product and began producing them under the name CliffsNotes. The company would go on to produce reference guides for subjects other than literature.
7) The McRib
Ahh, the McDonald's McRib - you either love it or you hate it. In the 1970s, University of Nebraska professor emeritus of of animal science Roger Mandingo was approached by the National Pork Producers Council. They wanted him to come up with a product created from pork trimmings that they could sell to McDonald's. We'll spare you the details of the "restructured meat" process Mandingo invented, but it's similar to the technique used to make sausage. McDonald's chefs invented the shape of the patty and the special sauce that make the McRib a fast-food favorite to some.
8) Arbor Day
This springtime celebration of trees was introduced to America by J. Sterling Morton in 1872. On April 10th of that year, approximately one million trees were planted in Nebraska. Today Arbor Day is celebrated annually around the world by the planting of trees.
9) Bakers Candies
These delectable meltaway chocolates are a Nebraska staple at Christmas (and anytime chocolate is called for) and are sold around the world. They've been produced in Greenwood, Nebraska for three generations.
10) The Chair Lift (AKA Ski Lift)
Union Pacific engineer (the designing kind, not the train kind) James Curran came up with the design for the ski chairlift in 1936. He was inspired by hook-equipped banana conveyor systems that loaded cargo ships in the tropics. The first ski chairlifts were installed at the ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho in 1936 and 1937 - a resort that happened to be owned by Union Pacific.
11) Eskimo Pie
The inspiration for chocolate-coated ice cream bars came from a candy store in Onawa, Iowa in 1920. Owner Christian Kent Nelson took his invention to a Nebraska chocolatier named Russell Stover to mass-produce the confections under the Eskimo Pie name. (Stover later moved to Colorado before starting his now-famous brand of boxed chocolates.)
12) Cushman Model 53 Airborne Scooter
Cushman Motor Works, a company started in 1903 in Lincoln, manufactured engines for farm equipment. But one of their most famous products was introduced during WWII. The Cushman Model 53 Airborne Scooter was designed to be dropped from a plane by parachute along with airborne soldiers. The scooters were used to ensure easy mobility and communication between units.
In the 1920s, Hastings resident Edwin Perkins was inspired by a juice-flavored drink concentrate called Fruit Smack. He played around with formulas to remove the liquid from the drink until only a powder remained, a process that would reduce shipping costs and eventually allow 21st century shoppers to buy a packet for the low price of 25 cents.
During the cold war, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture developed a nutritious wheat-based biscuit meant to be stored in bomb shelters in the event that an atomic bomb should hit the area. The grain bars look like hamster food and probably tasted similar, but they were said to provide adequate nutrition for up to two weeks.
15) Dorothy Lynch Salad Dressing
A woman named Dorothy Lynch served as the manager of Legion Club restaurant in St. Paul. In the late 1940s, Dorothy developed a sweet and tangy dressing somewhat similar to a thick French dressing. Community members loved it so much that Dorothy sold the recipe to Tasty-Toppings so it could be widely manufactured. Today, every bottle of Dorothy Lynch comes from a production facility in Duncan, Nebraska.
16) Stroboscopic Photography
Fremont native Harold Eugene Edgerton became interested in the use of stroboscopes - today most recognizable as strobe lights - to study synchronous motors. This subject was the topic of his Sc.D thesis at MIT in 1927. His methods go on to be used in photographing high speed subjects (like a balloon popping) to catch split-second details. Okay, so maybe it's a stretch to say the process was invented IN Nebraska since Edgerton was attending MIT at the time of his thesis, but we'd like to think the foundations of his ideas came to him right here at home.
The Runza isn't known around the world or even around the country, but we'll let it slide on account of deliciousness. The original idea for the Runza sandwich didn't actually originate in Nebraska - it was introduced to the area by German immigrants. However, brother-and-sister team Sarah Everett and Alex Brening gave a face, brand name, and easy availability to the meat-stuffed pastry in 1949 when they opened the first Runza Drive-Inn in Lincoln.
18) Collapsible Voting Booths
The next time you step into a voting booth and pull the curtain closed behind you, be sure to thank Nebraska native Elizabeth Robb Douglas. The idea came to her in a dream in 1905. That dream launched the Douglas Manufacturing company which operates to this day in Crete.
Plenty of nationally known products are manufactured in Nebraska but were invented elsewhere: Spam (the canned meat), center pivot irrigation systems, and Kellogg’s cereal, among others. It just goes to show that Nebraska has a lot to offer the world. You’re welcome, world.