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Paul Holley
Paul Holley

If you’ve ever ridden in an air-conditioned car, thank Arthur B. Modine – one of Racine’s most prolific inventors, who was awarded 122 U.S. patents during his lifetime and built an international manufacturing business.

Modine (1885-1981), a Chicago native, arrived in Racine in 1913. He’d earned a degree in mechanical engineering and was extremely busy tackling issues related to the internal-combustion engines that were becoming the preferred power source for farm tractors, construction equipment and most other things that moved.

Gadgets and Geeks

A problem with early gasoline-powered engines was they produced a great deal of heat. The engines themselves could be cooled with water, but there was still the question of how to keep the water cool enough to do its job.

The answer, developed by early automotive engineers like Modine, was in the radiators attached to the engines. Modine was a partner in a small radiator manufacturer called Perfex but sold his interest in that business to strike out on his own with a better idea.

Modine products cooled things off

Modine’s approach was the Spirex radiator that cooled the engine’s water by passing air through the radiator. He launched Modine Manufacturing Co. in 1916 in rented space in what is now the Racine Business Center on 16th Street. The Spirex radiator was a very successful component for farm tractor engines made by major manufacturers like John Deere.

Gadgets and Geeks - wk 4 - 2
A fresh air auto heater was an early product of Modine Manufacturing Co.. This model was designed for Nash Motors in nearby Kenosha. (from Racine Heritage Museum display)

By the 1920s, Modine-designed radiators were being produced for cars, trucks, buses, farm equipment and construction equipment. Modine Manufacturing acquired its own facility in 1924 and became a publicly-held company in 1928. Ford Motor Co., maker of the fabled Model T, became a major customer during this era.

Arthur Modine kept on inventing and adding new products all related to heat transfer (moving heated air to or away from something). When bitter cold shut down the heating systems in several Racine factories, he connected an automobile radiator to a factory boiler pipes and used an electric fan to circulate the heat. The suspended unit heater remains an important Modine Manufacturing product line to this day.

Other innovations that came from Modine Manufacturing’s engineering team included automobile heaters, oil coolers for hydraulic drives and a process for bonding aluminum components that made automotive air-conditioning practical.

Modine Manufacturing was a significant defense industry contributor in both World Wars. In WW I, its radiators were used in artillery tractors. In WW II, its supercharger aftercoolers were used in the famed P-51 Mustang aircraft.

Arthur Modine retired as chairman of Modine Manufacturing in 1962 and officially retired from the company’s board in the 1970s. He was awarded his final U.S. patent for a heat exchanger at age 92 in 1977.

Modine today

Gadgets and Geeks wk 4 - 3
Arthur B. Modine kept actively inventing into his 90s. These sketches and notes were done on old envelopes and pieces of scratch paper while he lived in retirement in Florida. (from Racine Heritage Museum archives)

Meanwhile, Modine Manufacturing Co. grew to have annual sales of about $2.1 billion and global operations with 11,700 employees. Its products include engine cooling assemblies, radiators, condensers, charge air coolers, cooling plates for battery thermal management, unit heaters and rooftop ventilation units. The company’s corporate headquarters and research/development facility is at DeKoven Avenue and South Memorial Drive.

Arthur Modine had a number of other interests beyond heat transfer technology. He co-founded Twin Disc Inc. with Percy Batten and Thomas Fawick in 1918 (more about that in a future installment). Along with H.M. Benstead, he donated funds to build an observatory dedicated in 1963. Operated by the Racine Astronomical Society, the Modine-Benstead Observatory, 112 63rd Drive in Yorkville is open to the public monthly from April to October. The pond at the Racine Zoo is also named in Modine’s honor.

Material for this story came from “Invention City – The Sesquicentennial History of Racine, Wisconsin” by John Buenker (1998 – Racine Heritage Museum), Racine Heritage Museum archives and Wikipedia.)

About Gadgets & Geeks

Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because on Wednesday, May 29 from 6 to 8 p.m., the Racine County Eye will hold Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night at The Brickhouse, 316 Main St. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories. If you are interested in advertising or sponsoring this series, click here.

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Read our other stories:

Gadgets and Geeks: Horlick’s Malted Milk

Albert Dremel and the rotary tool

John W. Hammes and the garbage disposal

Paul Holley is retired from careers in journalism, public relations and marketing but not from life. These days, he pretty much writes about what he feels like writing. You may contact him directly at:...