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Typically American Innovator, Milton M. Levine, Died Last Week At 97…

President Obama, in his State of the Union Message, told America that it had to get back to invention and innovation… the things that made us great and that were now happening in other countries. He was talking about automobiles and machines of industry, but last week one of the true heroes of American innovation, who invented a unique product, raised a family and sent his children to school on the profits, and sold his company shortly before his death for $20 million.

Who was this great man and what was his invention? In 1956 Milton M. Levine co-created the Ant Farm with his brother-in-law, E. J. Cossman, something millions of American children have used to learn about the dynamic activities of Pogonomyrmex californicus — red ants from California — as they tunnel and create “underground” communities.

Originally selling for $1.98, Levine sold mostly through mail order the 6″ x 9″ plastic “farm” with clear plastic sides that revealed the tunneling insects. Demand was so great that a 10″ x 15″ model soon followed.

If you were a fourth grader like me who ordered the ant farm, you waited for it to come in the mail only to discover that it contained no ants. There was a coupon which you sent in led to delivery of a plastic vial with 25 worker ants inside (no Queens, which were illegal to ship over state lines). This meant that, some weeks later you had to order more ants to replace the ones that died. Or, you could dig up your own and hope you got a queen… and were likely to find a completely different breed that “didn’t get along” with the little red guys. That’s what happened to mine.

Levine sold his company, Uncle Milton Industries, in 2010 after 54 years of producing the great American product. The original sized ant farm sells today for $10.95. Commenting on what he had learned from Pogonomyrmex californicus, Levine once said:

“I found out their most amazing feat yet… They put three kids through college.”

We should all remember the way innovation can spring from almost anywhere in America. Farewell, Milton Levine… you helped make us great.