The legacy of Gilmore T. Schjeldahl (Shelly) began in 1948 when he created a bag making machine in the basement of his Minneapolis home. Herb Harris invested $100 in the venture, which enabled Shelly to fill his first order for large bags to be used as barrel liners for pickles, beginning a new business called Herb-Shelly, Inc. In 1949, the company moved from Shelly's basement to a small shop in Farmington, MN. By 1954, the company had $500,000 annual sales and 100 employees. The company started experimenting with lamination at this time, researching adhesives for a new flexible Dupont polymer called Mylar. The company was also involved in the fabrication of a balloon for the Office of Naval Research at the University of Minnesota. In May of 1954, Herb-Shelly was acquired by Brown and Bigelow, a St. Paul advertising products firm. Shelly resigned and left the company on January 8, 1955.
On January 21, 1955, Shelly began making plans for a new company to be located in the basement of the Medical Arts building in Northfield, MN. The company secured a contract in April 1955 to create atmospheric research balloons made with Mylar polyester film, held together with an adhesive system that Shelly developed. On September 1, 1955, the G.T. Schjeldahl Company (the Company) went public. In addition to balloons, the Company manufactured bag-making machines and heat-sealing adhesive tape. Eventually the G. T. Schjeldahl Company began developing a line of adhesive tapes for polyester bonding called Schjel-Bond (GT100, GT200, GT300, and GT400). Early in the Company's history two key individuals were hired, Dick Slater as project engineer and Jim Womack as a salesman. In December 1955, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company shipped its first automatic side-weld polyethylene bag-making machine to the Chase Bag Company in Los Angeles.
During this time, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company was divided into the Mechanical (packaging machinery) and the Polyester Film (balloons, special fabrication, and Schjel-Bond) Divisions. It sold more than 40 Mylar polyester stratospheric balloons by February 1956. The Company's balloons received national acclaim when one balloon climbed 27 miles into the air (a record), beginning in Minnesota, and traveling over seven states for almost three days before landing in a field in Kentucky.
The plastics were developed for more commercial use in "Schjeldomes," which were air- supported buildings. They only cost 98 cents per square foot and could be seen covering a swimming pool at Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior, an office and display center, and a storage building at Dupont's laboratories, to name just a few. In 1958, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company moved to a new location at the north edge of Northfield, and built a 340 foot long air-supported factory called the "Schjel-Mile." Eventually, the entire 54 acre operations center was called "Schjel-Town," and contained two Schjel-Miles, a factory and other small buildings, and a general office and laboratory.
Many federal government sponsored programs, such as Echo, PAGEOS, Pegasus, ROBIN, and ROSE, depended on the Company's research for their success. Some of the processes that Shelly learned from working on these government projects are still used in the Company's circuitry and other products.
The G. T. Schjeldahl Company received national fame for designing and building Echo I, a communications satellite which bounced television and radio signals back to earth, making coast to coast transmission of television possible. This "satelloon" was launched from Cape Canaveral on August 12, 1960, and was the largest object ever sent into orbit at that time. It was America's way of competing with the Russian satellite Sputnik; however, unlike Sputnik, Echo I could be seen from earth, and was followed by Americans and newspapers across the country. Echo I enabled America to create a satellite-based global telecommunications network.
The G.T. Schjeldahl Company also made the laminate and adhesive materials for the Polaris submarine missile program. These environmental seals, which were called diaphragms, kept water out of the sub until a missile was released.
G. T. Schjeldahl Company products and technology using vacuum deposition and lamination were used on the Pegasus satellite, putting the Company into the vacuum deposition business. Thermal control coatings for spacecraft, x-ray sensors, radar-absorbing films, Novaclad, and keypads for computer keyboards all were the result of vacuum deposition.
Balloons (Stratoscope II, ROBIN, Stargazer, and Voyager) continued to be an important part of the Company during the early 1960s. The most significant year was 1964. It was then that NASA launched Echo II. Arthur Hatch became President of the Company in 1964, but Shelly remained Chairman of the Board and Treasurer. The Company's Mechanical Division expanded into the European market. The Company also acquired a paper company in Rhode Island, and moved its packaging machinery operations there, making Jim Womack the head. It also acquired several electronic connector manufacturers.
By 1965, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company had three divisions, Advance Programs, (government research and marketing); Packaging Machinery (bag making); and, Electrical Products. From 1966 through 1971, the Company's Packaging Machinery Division expanded into shrink- wrapping and blow molding. In addition, the Company was considered a pioneer in flexible circuitry (created by using the Company's laminating technology). The Company supplied flexible circuitry for products such as Polaroid cameras and Ford's 1968 cars.
The weakening economy in 1967 caused government supported research to decrease. G. T. Schjeldahl Company sales decreased and net income decreased 60%. Arthur Hatch resigned as President in 1967, and was replaced by George L. Freeman. Shelly also resigned as Chairman of the Board, and started Giltech, a company which concerned itself primarily with making bottles through the blow molding process. The Giltech Company merged with another plastics company, Rainville, in 1972, and became Rainville, Inc. Eventually Rainville, Inc. merged with, and became, Universal Dynamics (UnaDyn), a company headquartered in Woodbridge, VA. In 1970, Shelly also created the Plastic Netting Machine Company. This company developed and produced devices for feeding and filling rigid plastic containers.
Meanwhile, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company struggled as sales continued to decline, down to 16.1 million from under 20 million in 1967, and continued to decline through 1970. In 1971, George L. Freeman resigned as Company President, and James Womack took over the helm. The Company and its products line then began to grow.
In 1974, the G. T. Schjeldahl Company changed its name to Sheldahl, Inc. (the Company or Sheldahl) because it was easier to spell, and it was hoped people would then pronounce it correctly. The Company achieved world-wide status for its materials technology. It was the nation's largest independent producer of flexible circuitry, and was also one of the largest suppliers of packaging material in the Western Hemisphere. Sheldahl also produced laminates and tapes, aerospace thermal control products, helicopter blade liners, flexible circuits, aerostats, membrane switches, aircraft keyboard instrumentation, and worked on products for solar energy programs.
Sheldahl built the bioshield for the unmanned spacecraft Viking which landed on Mars in 1975, and Sheldahl thermal control materials have been on every space shuttle mission since Columbia in 1981. The Company also supplied materials for the Alaska Pipeline.
In 1977, Sheldahl realized that it had branched out into too many areas and was too diverse. The Company decided to focus exclusively on materials and circuitry, and sold the businesses that did not fall under this umbrella. In the area of flexible circuitry, the Company invented the Flexswitch, which is used in microwaves and washing machines, as well as in office equipment, and supplied flexible circuitry to automobile manufacturers.
In the area of Packaging Machinery, Sheldahl's bag machine output was 5000 by 1980, beginning with only one in 1955. Any plastic bag that is used today was probably manufactured on a Sheldahl machine, or at the very least, a machine using Sheldahl technology. However, this division was sold in 1980 in order to focus on materials and circuitry.
In 1978, Shelly suffered a mild heart attack. During his recovery, he pondered techniques for opening up blocked arteries. This led to another business venture, the Cathedyne Corporation. Shelly worked with his cardiologist on improving coronary angioplasty catheters. The Cathedyne Corporation was sold to Angiomedics, Inc., a subsidiary of Pfizer, Inc., of Minneapolis, in 1983.
In 1987, Sheldahl signed an agreement with Sumitomo Bakelite Company of Tokyo, to manufacture and market flexible circuits and circuitry components. In 1988, James Womack stepped down as President and became Chairman of the Board, and James E. Donaghy became President. New products included Z-link, Novaclad in 1990, Novaflex in 1991, Novalink in 1993, and ViaGrid in 1994.
In 1993, Sheldahl led a consortium to help manufacture cheaper multichip modules (MCMs). Longmont, Colorado, was the site of the Company's pilot plant. The Longmont facility placed Sheldahl squarely into the data communications market. Sheldahl was also still active in aerospace during this time. Both the satellite Magellan (1989) and the Hubble telescope (1990) contained Sheldahl products and insulation materials. In 1989, the Company opened a flexible circuit finishing plant in Aberdeen, SD, and a second one was opened in Britton, SD, in 1993. Thermal control materials continue to be needed in spacecraft and satellites.
Sheldahl products and designs have been, and continue to be, used by all of us in our daily lives. In 2000, Sheldahl merged with International Flex Technologies, headquartered in New York.
Gilmore T. (Shelly) Schjeldahl died on March 10, 2002, in Lenox, Massachusetts.
The Schjeldahl Entrepreneur Records have been divided into six series as follows:
Series 1: Sheldahl, Inc.: General Business Records
Series 2: Sheldahl, Inc.: Designs, Patents, and Products
Series 3: G.T. Schjeldahl's Other Companies
Series 4: G.T. Schjeldahl, Personal
Series 5: Photographs
Series 6: Films