Cool Ideas, Hot Commodity La Crosse County

Connections in La Crosse County

  • 268 UW—Madison students
  • 2,066 UW—Madison alumni
  • Also from La Crosse County:

Data Source: University of Wisconsin Service Center

Did you know La Crosse’s Trane Company started as a small plumbing shop?

When we walk into a modern building, we take it for granted that it will be warm in winter, cool in summer. A series of radical ideas developed by a father-son team from La Crosse County made that expectation possible.

In 1885, Norwegian immigrant James Trane opened a humble plumbing and pipe-fitting storefront on Pearl Street in La Crosse. A year later, his son Reuben was born.

During World War II, Trane’s ingenuity helped the Allies when the company produced a critical component for fighter aircraft called the intercooler.

As Reuben grew up, he watched his dad tinker with gadgets. Inspired by cold Wisconsin winters, James invented a low-pressure water unit that he proudly called the Trane Vapor Heating System.

James TraneReuben worked as his father’s assistant for a year after graduating from La Crosse Central High School in 1905. He earned enough money to attend UW–Madison, where he studied mechanical engineering and captained the rowing team. He graduated in 1910, and he and his dad then transitioned out of the plumbing business and into heating manufacturing operations, incorporating as the Trane Company in 1913.

In those days, bulky cast-iron radiators heated homes and businesses. Reuben changed that in 1923 by inventing the convector radiator, which circulated hot water through a copper tube surrounded by a coil, thus increasing the contact surface with the air. That invention established the company as an innovator.

During World War II, Trane’s ingenuity helped the Allies when the company produced a critical component for fighter aircraft called the intercooler. This lightweight and efficient new heat exchanger allowed American piston-engine performance to match that of the Germans.

But Reuben maintained his connections to the UW. He served on the board of regents and, in 1945, was one of the original members of the board governing the university’s Gifts and Bequests Council — the organization that would , eventually, become the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.

James and Reuben Trane turned a classic American success story into a global phenomenon. Ingersoll Rand acquired Trane in 2008, but the Trane brand lives on through a division in the La Crosse area that employs more than 2,300.