A Brief History of Minnesota Science and Technology


Minnesota’s early industries — dating back to the late 1800’s — were defined by the abundant natural resources available like lumber and farm land. These industries were able to capitalize on Minnesota’s available hydropower from sources like St. Anthony Falls, and within a few years, flour milling innovation gave Minneapolis the title of milling capital of the world.

The growth of farming, logging and manufacturing made the state an industrial center, and Minnesota gave birth to companies that both fed and fueled the world. While the state was growing quickly, it had not yet developed its reputation for a highly educated workforce — less than half of Minnesota’s workforce had a high school degree.

Minnesota’s modern economy began to take shape in the years around and following World War II.  As the agricultural industry began to industrialize, Minnesota’s economy shifted to include more technical industries, and the state was well positioned to support technological growth due to its developed precision manufacturing industry. More than any other Midwest state, Minnesota attracted engineers who helped build the early computer industry and supported its growth as a technological leader. At the same time, Minnesota’s medical institutions began to gain recognition across the country for their ingenuity. Increased collaboration among the state’s growing manufacturing and pioneering health care and education sectors helped Minnesota emerge as the world’s top market for medical devices and healthcare innovations — innovations that have greatly impacted Minnesota, the nation, and the world.

Today Minnesota receives top rankings in the productivity of its workforce, digital connectedness, and its share of patents. Its collaborative spirit has kept the state on the cutting edge of rapidly changing health care, finance, food, and energy sectors.

Agriculture and Food

One of the defining industries of Minnesota’s early statehood was agriculture, and it has continued to hold importance in our economy. Many innovations in agriculture and food have come from Minnesota’s companies and higher education system.

These innovations have shaped the history and culture of Minnesota. For example, in 1880s the use of hydropower in watermills helped establish Minneapolis as the “Mill City” and allowed the state to make use of large sources of grain and lumber. Many of Minnesota’s largest companies have roots back to early milling time. Cadwallader C. Washburn, an early founder of General Mills, revolutionized the milling industry in Minneapolis by converting his mills to roller mills which greatly increased the efficiency in producing flour. As the industry grew, companies began making changes from simple production to more manufacturing and processing.

After World War II, the automation of feedlots, machine milking and inventions like Frederick McKinley Jones’ freight cooling systems helped lead to a modernization of Minnesota’s agriculture industry, which decreased the number of workers needed. This marked a shift in Minnesota’s workforce as it started to become more educated and involved in technical industries.

Minnesota’s educational institutions have also made contributions in agriculture that would change the world. In 1942, Norman Borlaug received his PhD from the University of Minnesota in plant pathology and genetics. Borlaug was inspired to go into plant pathology by the work of University of Minnesota professor and native Minnesotan, Elvin. C Stakman. Borlaug went on to bring high-yielding plants and improved agricultural techniques to Mexico, Pakistan and India, which greatly increased food production and decreased world hunger. He is credited for saving billions of lives and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

The University of Minnesota has made other contributions in agriculture and bioscience that had large effects on the industry, like the creation of the Honeycrisp Apple in 1991.

Overall, Minnesota is the nation’s fourth-largest exporter of agricultural goods. Additionally, Minnesota has five Fortune 500 companies that have operations in food and beverage production and distribution: General Mills, Land O’Lakes, Hormel Foods, CHS, and SuperValu.


Minnesota’s early sectors of agriculture and logging led to the development of the state’s manufacturing industry. As early companies, like General Mills, 3M, and Honeywell began to grow, they started to diversify their production and develop new inventions. Honeywell got its start in Minnesota in 1885 by acquiring a patent for Albert Butz’s “damper flapper,” a predecessor of the thermostat.  In 1920, 3M created the world’s first waterproof sandpaper, which reduced airborne dust during automobile manufacturing. In 1925, Richard G. Drew developed masking tape, one of 3M’s signature products.

During wartime, many of these companies created products to support the war efforts. In the 1940s 3M developed magnetic sound recording tape and filament adhesive tape. In 1942, Honeywell invented the electronic autopilot. Shortly after World War II, in 1947, the Mayo Clinic’s Earl H. Wood developed the G-suit which helped fighter pilots withstand g-forces while in flight. In addition to his freight-cooling system, Frederick McKinley Jones at Thermo Kings developed portable cooling units for the military to keep food and supplies fresh.

Manufacturing in Minnesota continued to expand after World War II. Minnesota companies invented products that have become widely used like the Post-It note created by Arthur L. Fry at 3M and the snow blower created by Toro. Many of these Minnesota-grown companies have become Fortune 500 companies that continue their history of innovation.

Health Sciences

Minnesota’s contributions to health sciences have come from our premier medical and education institutions. Not only have these institutions provided years of outstanding education and medical service to Minnesotans but they have also led to significant advances in the health sciences.

Established in 1889 by the Mayo family and the Sisters of Saint Francis, the Mayo Clinic has distinguished Minnesota as a place for medical innovation and excellence. Among the numerous contributions the Mayo Clinic has made, in 1950, two Mayo Clinic doctors, Philip S. Hench and Edward C. Kendall, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries relating to hormones of the adrenal gland. This work also included the discovery of cortisone and its biological significance.

The University of Minnesota played a key role in developing many medical techniques. In 1952, C. Walton Lillehei and F. John Lewis conducted the first successful open heart surgery. Throughout his career, Dr. Lillehei made several great contributions to medical techniques including cross circulation, which allowed for more elaborate open heart surgeries.

The University of Minnesota’s research has also been influential in health science. In 1998, medical chemist Robert Vince discovered a group of antiviral agents called carbovaris which led to his discovery of breakthrough anti-AIDS medication called Abacavir, now marketed as Zaigen.

The Mayo Clinic continues to be on the front lines of health care. It is ranked number no. 1 in America for numerous specialties and ranked in the top 5 for 14 different specialties. This high level of care partnered with the great medical education systems and research institutions has made Minnesota a hub for health science.

Medical Devices

The advances in health science, precision manufacturing and technology laid the foundation for Minnesota to become the world leader in the invention and production of medical devices.

In 1955, Dahlberg Inc, a predecessor of Miracle-Ear, produced the first in ear hearing aid with the use of transistors to make it lightweight and wearable. Minneapolis is also home to Starkey Hearing Technologies — the United States’ largest manufacturing of hearing aids.

One of the largest contributions Minnesota made to medical devices was the development of the battery-powered pacemaker. In 1957, at the request of the famous University of Minnesota surgeon, C. Walton Lillehei, Earl Bakken created the first wearable, external, battery-powered pacemaker. Previous pacemakers were large and cumbersome and relied on wall current for power. Having a battery-powered pacemaker allowed patients to have more mobility and kept patients alive during power outages. Bakken’s invention helped to establish his company, Medtronic, into much more than a medical device repair service. Several years later, Medtronic started to develop fully implantable pacemakers as well. Additionally in 1966, Lillehei developed and implanted the first prosthetic heart valve. In the following years he helped develop improved valve models.

The environment for medical devices grew rapidly in Minnesota as medical practices began to incorporate more technology. This allowed for many small companies in Minnesota to establish strong footholds in the national and global market. Minnesota is now one of the largest producers of medical devices in the world.

The culture of innovation continues to exist in Minnesota. Minnesota patents are at their highest levels on record — at 4,626 patents in 2014 — with medical device-related patents leading the way.

Computing, Information and Programming

The increased education levels of Minnesota’s workforce and the development of precision manufacturing were the building blocks of a computer industry that flourished in Minnesota. Engineering Research Associates (ERA) was a pioneer computer company that started in 1946 and was formed from a group of World War II scientists and engineers who worked on code breaking. ERA was best known for their drum memory product, the ERA 1101. (Drum memory was a precursor to hard disk drive.)

ERA and Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation were eventually bought by Remington Rand. In 1955, Sperry Corporation acquired Remington Rand which became Sperry Rand. William Norris and others from Remington Rand left Sperry Rand to form Control Data Corporation (CDC), with Seymour Cray as the chief designer.  In 1964, Cray and his team introduced the CDC 6600. This computer was considered a “supercomputer” since it outperformed all other computers by a factor of ten. For his innovation and inventions in computing he is considered “The Father of the Supercomputer.”

In the late 1950s, IBM began establishing a presence in Rochester. IBM was very successful in combining their manufacturing experience with computing technologies and began to develop and produce a number of computers and devices like the supercomputer Blue Gene.

In the 1990s, a team at the University of Minnesota invented the Gopher Internet protocol, a predecessor of the World Wide Web and HTTP. The World Wide Web and HTTP ultimately became the standard but Gopher Internet is still used today by enthusiasts.

Learn More About MN Computing History

Minnesota Today

Today, our science and technology industries continue to grow from Minnesota’s great foundation. Our state is home to large companies like Digital River and Unisys that continue to thrive. Large Minnesota-based retailers like Best Buy and Target continue to play a vital role in introducing technologies to the American population.

Minnesota is also home to a number of rapidly-growing software and technology companies like SPS Commerce, Code42, and JAMF Software. Our startup community is experiencing exciting developments, including the growth of the Minnesota Cup competition and great companies like LeadPages, Astro HQ, Learn to Live, Vidku and many others.

Our state’s historical strength in medical devices and health tech continues, led by companies like Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, and Boston Scientific, along with new startups like CVRx, RetraceHealth, Zipnosis, and Rebiotix.

In the summer of 2015, Minnesota was named the fastest growing state in the nation for technology jobs — according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and was featured by CNBC as the Best State for Business. Minnesota has some of the most talented people and best companies in the world.

For more information or feedback, contact news@mhta.org.

Posted January 2016