12 Lesser-Known Michigan Inventions and Celebrities

Michiganders are happy to rattle off a list of our celebrities and inventions to anyone who will listen. Ever heard of the automobile, Motown, Vernors, Iggy Pop, Stroh’s, or Alice Cooper? Need I go on? So much great art and culture come from Michigan. I’m always discovering a new (to me) Michigander or invention.

If you want to share some Michigan trivia at your next dinner party, read on — Michigan is responsible, for better and for worse, for all of this:

1# Snowboarding

Before there was the Burton board, there was the Snurfer, invented by Muskegon’s own Sherm Poppen. Poppen’s initial invention used two water skis and a rope for his children: snow + surf = Snurfer.

2# The Gipper

George Gipp, Notre Dame’s first All-American football player, was a Yooper and was immortalized by Ronald Reagan as the “Gipper” in Knute Rockne, All American.

3# Gumby


Claymation pioneer Art Clokey was born in Detroit and used the soil on his grandparent’s farm in Millington as inspiration for Gumby. According to Found Michigan, “Even the name ‘Gumby’ has Michigan roots: After rainstorms, the clay in the soil would turn into a thick, goopy mess—a slurry that Clokey’s father jokingly referred to as ‘gumbo’ every time his car got stuck.”

4# The Real McCoy

The saying “the real McCoy,” or the real thing, comes from Ypsilanti-based African American inventor Elijah McCoy in reference to his oil-drip cup lubricant system for locomotives. McCoy also invented the folding ironing board, in case you were wondering.

5# The Dharma Initiative

You probably know the Dharma initiative started at the University of Michigan but did you also know Locke is a Yooper? The actor Terry O’Quinn who played Locke on Lost, was born in Sault Ste. Marie. Even if you didn’t know that, don’t you feel like you just knew somehow?

6# The Wizard of Oz

Writer Frank Baum used Holland, Michigan, and Lake Macatawa as inspiration for the land of Oz and wrote portions of the classic from his Victorian summer home in West Michigan.

7# Silent Film Star

Buster Keaton spent his childhood summers in Muskegon and always regarded Skee-town as his hometown. Who needs Charlie Chaplin when you have “The Great Stone Face?” See more of Buster Keaton in Muskegon.

8# Nellie Ball

Don Nelson

Don Nelson, the NBA’s all-time winningest coach, was born in Muskegon. Nelson is credited with inventing the modern brand of fast-paced, up-tempo basketball that we now associate with professional hoops. 

9# Paved Roads and Traffic Lights

In 1909, Woodward Ave. between 6 and 7 Mile became the first road in the world to be paved with concrete. Eleven years later, Detroit police officer William Potts invented the three-way traffic light.

10# Saved by the Bell

Actress Elizabeth Berkley was born and raised in Farmington Hills. I’m not saying Jessie Spano was the coolest student at Bayside High or even the most important cast member, but she was valedictorian and did know how to party.

11# Modern Burlesque

And speaking of Showgirls (see what I did there?), Dita Von Teese, a woman Vanity Fair called “a burlesque superheroine,” was born in West Branch, Michigan — from Northern Michigan to Marilyn Manson, to Paris.

12# Yankees Baseball

Yankees baseball owes a lot of its success (evil, evil success) to Derek Jeter. Can’t say I’m proud he’s from Kalamazoo, but it’s a fact of life I’ve learned to deal with. Looking at Jeter’s High School Yearbook photos helps, but I prefer to skip Jeter altogether.

Did you know Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers grew up in Grand Rapids, Jason Newsted of Metallica was born in Battle Creek and attended Gull Lake High School, and World Series of Poker Champion Greg Raymer was raised in Lansing?

Did I miss any of Michigan’s lesser-known inventions or minor celebrities? Leave them in the comments so I can brag about Michigan next time I travel out of state.

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About the author
Growing up in Detroit, Lindsey is a Michigan State University alumnus. She feels incredibly lucky to live in Detroit, and much more, to spend her days promoting the Detroit area as a travel destination.