Wisconsin Innovations: new Madison exhibit

Here are a few of the answers: American Girl dolls. Malted milk. The typewriter. Bioluminescence technology. 

Each solves this question: What has Wisconsin ingenuity produced?

A new Wisconsin Historical Museum exhibit, “Wisconsin Innovations: From the Iconic to the Unexpected,” generates dozens more answers and sorts them into five categories: Big Ideas (concepts), Business/Industry (products), Local Flavor (food), Pop Culture and Sports/Leisure.

“We started by looking at our own collections, but much of what we have here is on loan, which is wonderful because it’s led us to new partnerships,” says Jennifer Kolb, director of the Madison museum.

Examples: supercomputer remnants from the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology, a fractional horsepower motor from the Racine Heritage Museum, vintage underwear advertisements from Jockey International, Kenosha.

Jockey International’s predecessor, Coopers Inc., invented men’s jockey shorts in 1934 and promoted them with a promise of “no squirming in the pilot seat.” The product was inspired by swimsuits seen along the French Riviera.

“Some stories are fairly well-known – like the invention of the typewriter and QWERTY keyboard in Milwaukee,” says Dave Driscoll, lead curator for the exhibit, a two-year project that replaces the museum’s longstanding “Odd Wisconsin” display.

Other stories “kind of came out of nowhere,” he says. Example: Thomas Fifield’s 1968 Air Hat, a copper helmet worn by divers in contaminated areas. It was easier to secure the original model than a 2011 version because of a shortage created by the nuclear crisis in Japan. Milwaukee’s Desco Corp. makes the product.

“We had a lot of discussion about what makes something a Wisconsin invention,” Dave notes. “Is it about where the inventor was born, or where a discovery was made or perfected?

“We invite people to make their own decisions.”

That’s why the exhibit makes room for the hollow surfboard and paddleboard. Although invented in California, they were the 1920s work of Tom Blake, who was born and buried in Wisconsin. On loan from the Washburn Area Historical Society, where the inventor spent his final years, is a vintage paddleboard used by lifeguards to quickly cut through the surf.

Other creations are harder to illustrate. Bioluminescence technology, developed by Madison’s Promega Corp., uses firefly chemistry to pursue biomedical research. The University of Wisconsin’s 1986 UW Solution, a fluid that preserves organs, remains crucial for organ transplants.

Some artifacts add whimsy, such as a sculpture of the mythical Rhinelander hodag, the work of three Eau Claire men (including the hosts of monstermodelreview.com, whose specialties are model kits and hobby-related subjects).

What else? A trademark for malted milk was issued in 1887 to William Horlick of Racine. The first American Girl dolls were made in Middleton in 1986. The roundup is diverse, and explanations reach beyond the obvious.

For sale in the museum gift shop are wooden muddlers, to make the state’s unofficial cocktail, the Brandy Old Fashioned. Who invented it? “Wisconsin Innovations” says it likely involves the introduction of Korbel brandy at the 1893 Columbia Exposition (world’s fair) in Chicago.

“The Germans who were there really liked it,” Dave says, “but why didn’t the Germans from Missouri start drinking it” as much as Wisconsin’s Germans?

Consider it one of life’s little mysteries.

“Wisconsin Innovations” stays in place at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., Madison, until Aug. 31, 2012. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday. For more: www.wisconsinhistory.org, 608-264-6555.

Also new and noteworthy in Madison:

Guess what color plays a starring role at the newly opened HotelRED, boutique lodging in the shadow of Camp Randall in Madison? Wisconsin Badger football fans couldn’t have an easier walk to the stadium, and many of the rooms include a balcony that overlooks Monroe Street – perfect for people watching.

Introductory rates begin at $111, but you won’t book anything this cheap on home game dates. At the high end are two-bedroom suites that face Monroe; expect to pay $679 on football Saturdays (that’s more than twice the going rate on weekdays).

Fully open in early autumn is The Wise, a hotel restaurant that includes a tapas menu and cocktail lounge. For more about HotelRED, 1501 Monroe St., Madison: www.hotelred.com, 608-819-8228.

Want to get better acquainted with Madison without moving your car? Buy a 24-hour pass to use public bicycles to get around town.

The Madison B-cycle program places 270 locked Trek bikes at 24 locations around Madison; use a credit card to pay the fee to ride and roam, then re-lock the bike at any B-cycle station. Usage is automatically recorded; all rides of less than 30 minutes are included with the 24-hour pass. Ride longer than 30 minutes at a time, and an additional fee is assessed.

So you can visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens and Henry Vilas Zoo, five miles apart, without blistering the feet or turning an ignition switch. Both attractions have B-cycle stations.

Within Madison are 43 miles of bike paths, including a trail that follows Lake Monona; see cityofmadison.com and click on “transportation.” Notice the Ride the Drive event, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 25, when a lasso of city streets is closed to vehicles.

Soon B-cycle will have 350 bikes at 35 stations in Madison. More details are at www.bcycle.com, 800-473-4743. The program exists in 10 other cities, including Chicago.

Food Fight, when in Madison, refers to an umbrella of 18 restaurants – each with a different culinary emphasis and individually owned, but all benefiting from group branding, purchasing and marketing. The restaurants are known for their quality and distinctiveness.

Soon Luigi’s, 515 S. Midvale Blvd., reopens at a new location as the 19th Food Fight restaurant, specializing in Italian fare – oven-baked pastas to thin-crust pizzas. Orchestrating the effort is chef Bill Horzuesky, whose Food Fight work began in 1999. He and wife Melanie operate three other Food Fight sites; the best-known is Bluephies Restaurant and Vodkatorium, 2701 Monroe St.

For more about Luigi’s, stay tuned to www.luigismadison.com, 608-661-7663.

Most Food Fight restaurants are in Madison. Exceptions include Market Street Diner and Bakery, Sun Prairie, and Riverview Terrace Café, Spring Green (inside the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center). For more about Food Fight: www.foodfightinc.com, 608-246-2719.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.