'Magnificent Machines Of Milwaukee' Exhibit Displays The City's Rich Engineering History

Dec 9, 2019

Milwaukee was once called the city that "feeds and supplies the world." It was also known as "the machine shop of the world." Milwaukee began to industrialize around the Civil War, thanks in big part to a canal on the bank of the Milwaukee River to supply hydropower.

"Having hydrofacilities available allowed companies to move in, then use the hydropower as a resource to drive machinery and the like," notes Thomas Fehring, author of The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the Engineers Who Created Them.

"Milwaukee has a great history of developing the most sophisticated, the most efficient, the most powerful steam engines that drive the various apparatus," he adds.

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Waukesha Motors was formed in 1906 as a machine repair shop. Then the company went on to design and built their own custom engines.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Fehring is a historian and a former engineer. He grew up in Milwaukee near the A.O. Smith factory and his book includes everything from household names like Harley-Davidson and Master Lock, to inventions like scuba gear from DESCO or the thermostat. The most recent edition of "Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee" has also inspired a new exhibit at MSOE’s Grohmann Museum of the same name, which is on display now through Jan. 26.

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James Kieselburg, director of the Grohmann Museum, notes that the museum typically displays the art of industry through paintings, bronzes and works on paper. So, while it's a departure for the Grohmann to deal with an artifactual exhibition, it's a natural fit.

Joseph Merkel predated Harley Davidson in producing motorcycles. This bike was shipped to Milwaukee from a private museum in New Jersey.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

"Magnificent Machines" has over 26 lenders and over 160 artifacts on display. One of the pieces that traveled the farthest is a Milwaukee built Merkel motorcycle. It came from a private museum in Hillsdale New Jersey, according to Fehring, who also served as a guest curator for the exhibit.

"Putting it all together, a lot of it was just a matter of trying to reach the right person in the right companies," Fehring says. From looking in basements and visiting over two dozen companies for appropriate artifacts, "it was a very fun experience and James and I really enjoyed searching around."

To learn more about the machines, objects and artifacts featured in the exhibition, Fehring and Kieselburg joined Lake Effect’s Audrey Nowakowski in the studio: