Your garage holds more than just your cars and rarely-used power tools. It holds the potential for greatness. The wide-open floorplan and separation from the rest of the house mean that the garage is the perfect room for making noise, as countless hobbyist handymen or teenage bands have discovered. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the greatest companies in the world got their starts in garages.
Join us as we explore these achievements through a running blog series, updated every Monday. We’re interested in learning all there is to know about the creativity produced in the most pivotal garages in history, and we’ll bring all of our findings straight to you.
Welcome to Garage Greatness.
Who hasn’t fantasized about discovering a buried stash of old valuables, or uncovering a pirate’s treasure from the beach? Children and adults alike love to rediscover the past, and one of the most fun and potentially lucrative ways to do that comes with treasure hunting. Hobbyists and professionals who search through ruins, farmsteads and beaches for relics from another time capture the imagination of us all, and hearing about someone finding a lost wedding ring or handful of colonial-era coins makes you wish that you’d been the one searching your backyard! This desire is exactly the reason that led Dr. Gerhard Fisher to patent the metal detector and found Fisher Research Labs, an ongoing world leader in metal detectors. Fisher founded his company in 1931 in Palo Alto, California, inside the garage attached to his home.
Scientists first became interested in developing a device capable of detecting metal in the late 1800’s, with a plan to apply these tools to mining operations. Although there have been (and continue to be!) dozens of improvements and innovations within the field, the basic idea behind those first detectors is not dissimilar to the way that metal detectors are built today. Metal detectors reply upon magnets and electricity to both produce and detect electromagnetic current. The device generates an electromagnetic field which reacts to any metal in the ground and causes that metal to produce a field of its own. Then, the detector senses this response field and makes a noise like a clicking or beeping that alerts the user that they’ve found something! This is the most common way that metal detectors function, although not the only one.
Although the technology was originally researched for economic reasons, the first models required too much electricity and were too cumbersome to be effectively used “in the field.” Instead, the first practical application of the metal detector was actually in the operating room, where a hand-held device could be used to locate bullets of other metal inside a patient. A Parisian named Gustave Trouvé developed this tool in 1874, and several years later Alexander Graham Bell drew inspiration from Trouvé’s work when attempting to locate a bullet lodged inside President James Garfield. Although his machine was functional, Bell failed to account for the metal bed springs that Garfield was lying upon, and so he was unable to pinpoint the bullet before Garfield’s death.
The technology stagnated until the 1920’s, when Dr. Gerhard Fisher, in the process of developing an improved radar navigation system for airplanes, discovered a curious quirk in his instruments. Pilots using his system reported an issue where their bearings would become less accurate when metal objects passed between the transmitter and the receiver, or whenever they flew over certain parts of the terrain. Some trial-and-error led Fisher to deduce that the areas responsible for causing this problem were the areas made up of conductive minerals.
Making minor adjustments to his navigation tool left Fisher with a device that was essentially only a search coil capable of resonating at a particular frequency. His new machine was small enough to be carried by one man and could detect refractions and distortions in the radio beams, such as those caused by nearby metal. Just like that, Fisher had revolutionized the early metal detectors. Similar models from other inventors appeared around the same time, including devices used to find land mines and unexploded bombs left over from WWI or placed during WWII and a similar detector designed by a man in Indiana named Shirl Herr which was used by Benito Mussolini.
Fisher, although perhaps not the inventor of the metal detector, was the first person to receive a patent for one, and in 1931 he founded Fisher Research Labs in his garage. He hired on four employees to help him proceed his new product and started to make the first metal detector designed for civilian usage, an easy-to-use device that, although huge by modern standards, was the smallest option available to consumers at the time. He called this first product the “Metallascope,” later shortened to the nickname “M-Scope.”
In 1936, Fisher Research Labs finally outgrew the garage and found a small building in Palo Alto to continue producing Metallascopes. His device became the industry leader in quality, used by everyone from treasure hunters to geologists to law enforcement. To this day, metal detecting retains a passionate following as a hobby, in addition to finding uses in many stranger places. Soldiers and police officers still use metal detectors to search for explosives and hidden weapons, lumber mills use them to search for metal embedded in sawn logs, and utility companies use them to find buried pipes. Fisher Research Labs makes detectors specifically designed for each of these applications.
By 1939, Fisher Research Labs was so successful that they had to move again, into another Palo Alto property. Throughout WWII and the Korean Conflict, Fisher worked with the U.S. Government to share their technical skills, although production of Metallascopes never ceased. Shortly after the war, Fisher’s patents began to expire, and multiple competitors formed to try and jump into the successful industry. To this day, there remains a healthy competition between different brands of metal detectors, with fans of different sides arguing whose machines are the most accurate and effective.
Fisher Research Labs moved again, this time in 1961, and began to make other sensitive testing equipment as well, such as Geiger counters and voltage detectors. Fisher himself returned in 1967, although his company continues to run with the same dependability and innovation keeping it at the forefront of developments in the industry. In 1974, the company moved again, this time to Los Banos, California, where it remained until being acquired by First Texas Holdings Corporation in 2006. First Texas moved the company to El Paso, where it remains today.
This is not an isolated story; great companies and inventions seem to naturally find their starts in garages. Next Monday, Garage Greatness will look at the origins of bands that got their start in the garage! We’ll look many famous acts that found their first followers behind their garage door and let you know how each one got off the ground and into international stardom! You can read all about it next week, on Garage Greatness!