A wave of high-tech creativity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cemented Fort Wayne’s reputation as the Silicon Valley of its day. Some innovation highlights:
- Jenney Arc Lights illuminated League Park in Fort Wayne in 1883 for one of the earliest baseball games played at night.
- A self-measuring pump mechanism, devised in 1885 by Sylvanus Bowser, paved the way for today’s do-it-yourself gas pumps.
- The 1921 Horton electric washing machine freed generations of housewives from the drudgery of washboards and hand-cranked wringers.
“Allen County has long been an internationally valuable center for innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Todd Pelfrey, executive director of the Fort Wayne History Center.
The most famous entrepreneur with a Fort Wayne tie was Philo T. Farnsworth — perfecter of television tube technology — who began the mass production of TV sets in a Fort Wayne factory in 1939.
In Pelfrey’s view, “Fort Wayne’s most important 20th-century contribution to the international economy” was magnet wire. For a period in the 1910s and 1920s, Dudlo Manufacturing Company was the largest magnet-wire manufacturer in the country.
Magnet wire is a strand of copper or aluminum that, when coiled and energized by an electrical power source, creates an electromagnetic field. Electricity is useless without it, as George Jacobs understood when he started tinkering in his backyard shed.
The insulation is the key to the product’s safety and efficiency, but until Jacobs’ discovery the wire was typically insulated with cotton, which was bulky and subject to rapid wear and tear.
Jacobs, a native of Dudley, Mass, who worked in the paint business, created an enamel insulation with high-flash naphtha and tung oil, among other ingredients, which created a consistent coating on the finest of wire. He began producing the mixture on a limited scale and called his new business Dudlo, combining the words Dudley and Ohio, where he and his wife lived at the time.
Lured to Fort Wayne by the promise of an investment from his father-in-law, Jacobs built a small plant, appropriately located on Wall Street, where he and a few employees began producing magnet wire full-time. It expanded rapidly to accommodate demand from radio and telephone makers and from Ford Motor Co., which was seeking huge amounts of insulated small wire for ignition assembly.
At its peak, the business operated around the clock and employed 6,000 workers from Fort Wayne and nearby communities. Over its 26-year existence, the company produced an estimated 35 million pounds of enameled wire, according to the 1965 history of the Dudlo Manufacturing Company by Roy Bates and Kenneth Keller.
In 1927, with economic uncertainty on the horizon, Jacobs sold the company to General Cable Corporation; his superintendent, Victor Rea, stayed on to manage the plant.
The presence of magnet wire makers had a ripple effect on the Fort Wayne economy. Magnavox, maker of radios, record players and television sets, moved to Fort Wayne in 1931 to be closer to the industry so essential to its products. Company documents made note of Fort Wayne’s “fine climate of invention.” (Magnavox closed its Fort Wayne facility in 1975).
Despite a series of sales, mergers and acquisitions over the years, two magnet wire manufacturers still operate in Fort Wayne: Rea Magnet Wire and Superior Essex.
The History Center features a permanent display called Allen County Innovation, with examples of many other Hoosier creations, including those of present-day entrepreneurs: Vera Bradley, designer of quilted cotton luggage and handbags; Fort Wayne Metals, maker of medical grade wire; and Sweetwater Sound, a nationwide dealer in digital recording systems.
The History Center is at 302 E. Berry St. in Fort Wayne.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.