Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: The Ant House

Inventor: Professor Frank Austin

Professor Frank Austin and the ant house
Image courtesy of Dartmouth College Archives.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and for Frank Austin, class of 1895 and a retired professor of electrical engineering at Thayer School, his need was pretty dire. The stock market crash of 1929 left him broke. Austin, a member of the Dartmouth team that produced the first medical X-ray in 1896 and the author of numerous papers and texts on electricity, needed money. He set out to work and invented the Austin Ant House.

At the peak of production in the mid-1930s, 400 ant houses a day left Hanover. Austin’s economic success trickled down to the local economy. The professor paid Hanover kids $4 a quart for the estimated 3.6 million residents he needed for his ant communities. In addition to a basic $3.50 ant house, Austin marketed an Antville Fire House, Antville Coal Mine, an entire town called Ant Boro, and a top-of-the-line Ant Palace, which retailed for $50.

With fortune came fame. Profiles of Austin appeared in The New Yorker, New York Herald Tribune, and Forbes. Ant-house fever eventually cooled, but Austin’s inventiveness did not. A safer hurdle he made to cut down on runners’ injuries was used in the 1936 Olympics. He designed a rocket-propelled grenade and drew up plans for a bombproof airplane factory inside Mt. Washington. Austin eventually relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he ran a roadside museum until his death in 1964.

—Lee Michaelides

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Categories: Inventions

Tags: history, innovation, projects

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