As the old saying goes – necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of John W. Hammes, a disliked chore (taking out the garbage) resulted in the invention of a household appliance that is now used around the world.
Hammes (1895-1953), a Racine architect, headed to his basement workshop in 1927 to devise a solution to the distasteful job of taking out the household garbage. He came up with a grinder hooked to an electric motor that turned food waste into particles small enough to be flushed down the drain and eventually to the city’s sewage treatment plant.
The inventor kept perfecting his early garbage disposal prototype. By 1938, he was ready to start commercial production of the InSinkErator brand, which was a play on the word “incinerator” and a nod to the fact that the appliance did its work beneath the kitchen sink. The original factory was located on Clark Street.
InSinkErator flourished during the post-World War II housing boom of the 1950s and ‘60s. InSinkErator touted the labor-saving device with full-page ads in trendy magazines like Vogue. The appliance got a further boost when city officials around the country recognized that the use of disposals was a cost-effective method of dealing with household garbage. Several cities started to require garbage disposals in building codes for new housing.
InSinkErator moved into a new 245,000-square-foot factory at 21st and Ohio Street in Racine in 1962. That plant has been expanded many times since as production continued to grow. The company was acquired by Emerson Electric Co. in 1968 and became a subsidiary. Emerson later added hot water dispensers, trash compacters and dishwashers to the product line. By the late 1970s, InSinkErator was producing half of all the garbage disposals sold in the world.
In November 2018, Emerson opened its InSinkErator division’s $34 million headquarters and research and development facility on an 11.5-acre site at 1250 International Drive in Mount Pleasant. The new building is designed for certification by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The company is also making a $29 million investment to improve efficiencies and production at its 21st Street factory.
Today, InSinkErator produces disposals and hot water dispensers for home and commercial use. It also leads research into converting food waste into renewable energy and compostable material. That’s an outstanding legacy left by John Hammes, who just wanted to avoid taking out the garbage!
Material for this story came from “Invention City – The Sesquicentennial History of Racine, Wisconsin” by John Buenker (1998 – Racine Heritage Museum), “Industries of Racine County” by Alice Sankey (1956), the Racine Heritage Museum archives and Wikipedia.
Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention. Why? Because we’re hosting a Gadgets & Geeks trivia night from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 29 at The Brickhouse, 316 Main St. (Hint: The trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.)