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Adolph Ronning an Inventive Genius

BY BILL VOSSLER for Elk Magazine

Adolph Ronning earned his first patent while still in high school and went on to receive hundreds of other patents for items ranging from ensilage harvesters to explosive underwater mines.

ONE EVENING IN THE 1990s, Adair Kelley was watching a TV special about the exploration of the wreck of the Titanic. The Montevideo, Minnesota, woman watched as an underwater exploration vehicle glided around the wreck in the gloom, 12,467 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, and found herself looking at something she hadn’t expected to see. “I looked at the exploration vehicle,” Adair Kelley recalls, “and I said, ‘That’s dad’s propeller!” It wasn’t her father’s actual propeller, of course, but a propeller built using a non-snarl design he had invented. She was very moved by the episode and amazed that her father’s propeller design was still being used.
It’s not surprising that Kelley encountered one of her father’s inventions the way she did. If you have ever ridden in a powerboat, used a steam iron or a magnetic door latch, dimmed your car lights, or added a gasket to a lawn hose, you, too, have probably been in the presence of inventions conceived by the fertile mind of Adair Kelley’s father. His name was Adolph Ronning, and he was a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

During his prolific inventing career, Adolph Ronning, of the Phoenix, Arizona, Lodge, was awarded patents or had patents pending virtually every week for fifty-five straight years, and many of these patents involved items Americans still use today, like the sewer gas trap, the window stay, or the motorcycle. “He was always working on something,” Adair Kelley says, and this may have been very close to the literal truth. While stuck in an elevator one time in 1976, Ronning decided to use his live hours of captivity to sketch out an idea for which he later received a patent. It was a design for a manual elevator escape hatch.

Early Days

Adolph Ronning was born in 1893 and grew up on a farm near Boyd, Minnesota. His father died when he was seven years old, leaving him, his mother, and eight brothers and sisters to work the family farm. At this time, only a few of the children were old enough to do work around the farm, and because Adolph was one of them, his earliest inventions were designed to make agricultural work easier. According to Adair Kelley, who is his youngest daughter, “He was a typical kid on a farm figuring ‘There’s got to be an easier way to do this.’” In his early quest to simplilr agricultural work that was based on horse power, Ronning worked with his brothers to construct a tractor using an assortment of spare parts they found around the farm. This was quite a feat for a boy who was not yet ten years old, and there was still a great deal more to come. The only problem was funding.

During those early years, proceeds from the Ronning family farm were needed to support the family. There was little money left over with which to buy the expensive engines and parts Ronning needed to construct his inventions, so to earn the money he needed for his projects, he sold frozen fish out of a railroad boxcar, worked as a handyman painting silos for neighbors, and gave violin lessons. In this way, before he was even fully grown, he had begun working toward his first patent, which was a design for a horse-drawn ensilage harvester. The patent for the harvester was issued in April 1912, while the young inventor was still in high school, but feeling sorry for his family’s hardworking farm horses, which got hot and sweaty pulling a traditional harvester all day long, Ronning went to his drawing board and redesigned the harvester so that it could be pulled by a tractor and powered by the tractor’s power take-off. This change brought him one step closer to the realization of a goal Adair Kelley describes as “horseless farming.” The next step was raising the money needed to manufacture the harvester. After graduating from high school in 1912, Ronning became a country school teacher and taught for two years to make enough money to move to Minneapolis and begin manufacturing his redesigned harvester. Then, in the 1920s, he licensed the manufacture of the harvester to the International Harvester Company.
Ronning’s dedication to his chosen profession quickly became evident in the time he spent working on his inventions. He was known to work through the night, and his long hours of intense application resulted in numerous patents for important earthmoving and agricultural equipment, like the one-man power road grader (a device still in use today), an improved pneumatic elevator for loading silage into silos or bins, tractor implements, and a front wheel design for tractors that made it possible for them to negotiate rocks and potholes.
With the advent of Mechanical ensilaqe harvesters, like this Ronning single- machines like Adolph row harvester manufactured around 1923, helped take Ronning’s mechanical much of the manual labor out of the silaging process.
ensilage harvester, however, much of this manual labor was eliminated. Ronning’s harvester mechanically harvested the cornstalks, chopped them up, and transferred them and the grain from the stalks to an accompanying wagon, right in the field. When the wagon became full, it was replaced by an empty wagon while the full wagon was driven to the storage location, where its contents were unloaded. Ronning eventually developed an improved pneumatic elevator to more effectively move chopped silage from transport wagons to silos or bins. When used in combination with each other, his mechanical ensilage harvester and pneumatic elevator increased efficiency and helped
ensure that the harvesting and silaging processes could be conducted virtually without interruption.
SILAGE is a fermented animal feed made from chopped up cereal crops such as corn or sorghum. The process of creating silage is known as ensilage, or silaging, and prior to the invention of the mechanical ensilage harvester, making silage was highly labor-intensive work. Silage crops such as corn had to be harvested manually and removed from the fields before being hand chopped and fermented in silos, bins, or on the ground under covers.

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