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GT Schjeldahl, Space Pioneer


Gilmore T. Schjeldahl was one of the great creative minds of our times. He was born June 1st, 1912, and grew up in Esmond, Mott and, finally, in his mother’s hometown of Northwood. As a child, he enjoyed learning how things worked in blacksmith shops, farm implement stores, and power plants. He built his family’s first radio and also a static eliminator for the town newspaper.

Schjeldahl would be hampered if he were trying to start out now, because although he attended both, he finished neither high school nor college. But, back then a person wasn’t held back by lack of a college degree. As a testament to his sheer talent, Schjeldahl – known as Shelly – ended up receiving 16 patents and founding five successful companies.

Schjeldahl started out attending the State School of Science in Wahpeton, where he took courses in electrical machinery maintenance. Later, he also took some courses in chemistry, biology, and engineering at NDSU, where he met his wife, Charlene Hanson, a native of Christine.

In 1943, Schjeldahl was drafted and received a Bronze Star for his actions as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, the Schjeldahls moved to Chicago where he researched resins while working for Armour & Co. He was experimenting with a new, lightweight, plastic, packaging material called polyethylene, but he had a problem: it was tough, but it wouldn’t seal. He and Charlene came up with the solution in their kitchen by using hot knives that simultaneously cut and sealed two plastic sheets together.

They soon moved to Minneapolis, where Shelly worked on a bag-making operation in his basement – he wanted to make liners for pickle-barrels. He named his company Herb-Shelly, Inc. concentrating on thermoplastics and finding ways to line paper bags with plastic. For the Bemis Bag Company, he developed airsick bags for airliners in 1949, but Charlene says he didn’t think it was particularly significant. “One of the things he was most proud of,” she says, “was the development of the side-weld bag, making it possible for bread to be packaged in plastic, replacing the wax paper bag.”

Schjeldahl sold Herb-Shelly to Brown and Bigelow of St. Paul in 1955 and then started the G.T. Schjeldahl Co. – this time in the basement of a drugstore. This business focused on lamination and adhesives that would bond with a new DuPont polymer called Mylar. By the following year, he had succeeded in constructing forty high-altitude Mylar balloons, the largest being 500 feet in circumference. He also used his expertise to build air-supported plastic buildings called “Schjeldomes.” By 1962, his 340-foot long “Schjel-Mile” factory had expanded into a 54-acre “Schjel-Town.”

Shelly’s experience with high-altitude balloons ultimately led to his participation in the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was on August 12, 1960, that NASA launched Echo I, Schjeldahl’s 100-foot“Satelloon”, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was the first communications satellite ever launched. It was also (at that time) the largest man-made object ever sent into orbit – it was larger than a ten-story building. With an orbit 1,000 miles out, it circled the earth every two hours. As testimony to its durability, Echo I circled the earth approximately 36,000 times during the next eight years, creating the first coast-to-coast TV transmission in 1963. It was just the beginning of Shelly’s work with the space program.

In 1978, Shelly’s focus changed from outer-space to inner-space when he had a heart attack. The experience led him to work with his physician to improve coronary angioplasty catheters, which, in turn, led him to start his fifth company, the Cathedyne Corporation.

Schjeldahl’s lifetime contributions were enormous, including work on flexible circuitry for children’s toys, thermal control materials for the space program, automobile air bags, antilock brakes, window shades for airplanes and much, much more. Unfortunately, there was one problem he was not able to solve – Alzheimer’s disease. He lost that battle on this date in 2002.

Sources: Lux et Lex: Schjeldahl the Pioneer, Sandy Slater, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2002; New York Times: Gilmore T. Schjeldahl, Early Satellite Builder, Dies at 89, Wolfgang Saxon; March 16, 2002; Charlene Schjeldahl (personal correspondence), March 2005

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm