North Dakotan’s creations included ‘vomit bags’ for airplanes and the world’s largest satellite – InForum
FARGO – In 1949, Gilmore “Shelly” Schjeldahl of North Dakota began making the small, waterproof airsickness bags that were neatly stowed behind the passenger seats of nearly every major commercial aircraft in the United States. . A little over a decade later, he was responsible for creating large communications satellites for NASA that orbited the Earth every two hours.
These satellites revolutionized international communications because radio signals could be sent from a single location and bounced off the satellite and received tens of thousands of miles away. With her many inventions, innovations and creations, Shelly founded five successful companies: Herb-Shelly; GT Schjeldahl Co.; Gil-Tech/Shedahl development; Net Plastic Machine Co.; and the Cathedyne Corp.
After manufacturing products for Armor and Bemis Brothers Bag Co. in the 1940s, Shelly formed a partnership with Herb Harris in 1948, and they set up their factory in Farmington, Minnesota. At this location, they made plastic liners for large containers and plastic. bags and box inserts for commercial food products.
Although Herb-Shelly was growing at a rapid pace, it lacked the capital to be able to promote its products nationally. In May 1954, Brown and Bigelow, a St. Paul promotional products company specializing in calendars and playing cards, made an offer to acquire Herb-Shelly as a subsidiary of their company and the offer was accepted. . Shelly remained president of the Herb-Shelly subsidiary.
After only a few months at Bemis, Shelly grew bored in his position as a corporate executive in a larger organization, and on January 8, 1955, he resigned and disposed of his remaining shares in the company. Shelly already had ideas for starting a new business. He will market the “Automatic Side-Seal Poly Bag Making Machines” he designed for Herb-Shelly and used to mass-produce plastic bags.
After Continental Can Co., in Stamford, Connecticut, purchased a machine, Shelly moved to Northfield, Minnesota, and founded her new business, GT Schjeldahl (GTS), in the basement of the Medical Arts Building. Shelly’s machine sales would only constitute a small percentage of the revenue he expected from GTS. This was largely because he was aware of a new polyester material that had just been invented by DuPont called BoPet. It had “high tensile strength, chemical and dimensional stability, transparency and reflectivity.” It was also lightweight, provided electrical insulation, and was an excellent odor barrier.
The trade name DuPont used for BoPet was Mylar. Shelly believed that this product not only made an excellent packaging material for food products, but also had the potential to be used to make high-altitude aeronautical balloons.
Shelly was excited to start production of the new Mylar-based products he planned to make with GTS, but again he was short on capital and needed to attract an investor. Bruce Gjovig, in his recent book, Innovative Entrepreneurs from North Dakota, wrote, “He was introduced to a young venture capitalist, John ‘Jack’ Robinson, from Bismarck…Schjeldahl wanted no more than 50 $000 and wanted to keep control of the business. Robinson listened to the proposal and knew he needed at least $200,000 (for this) to become a viable operation”, and Shelly finally agreed.
In April 1955, GTS received its first contract to produce “atmospheric research balloons made with Mylar polyester film, held together by an adhesive system developed by Schjeldahl”. With the arrival of orders, GTS went public on September 1, 1955. For a new business to succeed, it needed good products or services, skilled and dedicated workers, compelling marketing and excellent management. . Shelly was recognized for recruiting exceptional professionals, and two of her early recruits who stood out were Dick Slater as a project engineer and Jim Womack as a salesman.
Sales of Mylar balloons by GTS got a huge boost in 1956 when one of their balloons, purchased by the University of Minnesota, reached a record altitude of 27 miles. By October 1957, GTS had received orders “to manufacture balloons from three branches of the military, two universities, and a company participating in the space program”. It was the perfect time because on October 4 of that year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. For the United States and the Soviet Union, the race for space had begun.
Many members of Congress saw it as a “threat to national security” and passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act signed by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. This act created the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) which consolidated many existing space organizations under one umbrella.
One of NASA’s original primary goals was to put a communications satellite into space so that information could be quickly transmitted between two points miles apart. The name of this program was “Project Echo”.
Anticipating that GTS would be directly involved in this and other space projects, Shelly moved its operational headquarters, in 1958, to a 54-acre facility on the northern edge of Northfield, Minnesota. In 1959, NASA contracted with GTS “to design, develop, manufacture, and test stiffened inflatable spheres for Project Echo. Shelly was well prepared to begin construction of satellite balloons/satellites after signing the contract with NASA One important reason was that a major division of GTS, in Northfield, specialized in “polyester Mylar stratospheric balloons”.
GTS built a large spherical-shaped satelloon (98 feet in diameter). Its thin skin was made of Mylar, “coated with spray-on aluminum and held together with ‘Schjel-bond,’ an adhesive developed and perfected by Schjeldahl.” On May 13, 1960, the Echo satellite was loaded onto a Thor-Delta rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Unfortunately, shortly after liftoff, the rocket plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. GTS then built another satellite which was loaded onto another rocket on August 12, 1960. This time the launch was successful.
When the rocket reached the prescribed altitude of 990 miles above the Earth’s surface, the satellite was jettisoned from the rocket, inflated with the chemical mixture, and placed into orbit. The mission was celebrated as a huge success and GTS was considered “a leader in space technology”.
We will conclude the Gilmore Schjeldahl story next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Fargo’s Jan Eriksmoen. Send your comments, corrections or column suggestions to Eriksmoens at [email protected]