Tuomas Vohlonen

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Tuomas Vohlonen
Tuomas Vohlonen taking a bearing
Born September 24, 1877
Orimattila, Finland
Died March 27, 1939
Resting place
Ruokolahti, Finland
Nationality Finnish
Other names Tommo
Occupation inventor
Spouse(s) Maria Elisa (Elli) Vohlonen

Tuomas "Tommo" Vohlonen was a famous Finnish inventor. A surveyor by trade, his patents cover a wide area of devices and activities including compasses, skis, surveying, engines and farming. His most important heritage is the company Suunto Oy which is still active producing compasses according to his patented method as well as dive computers, sport watches and heartrate monitors.

In April 1933, after experimentation with various designs, Vohlonen applied for a patent from the Finnish National Board of Patents and Registration for a compact liquid-filled field compass, in which the magnetic needle and damping fluid were completely sealed into a unitary fused celluloid capsule.[1] Vohlonen was granted a patent on January 25, 1935.[2] Together with his wife Elli and nephew Kauko he founded Suunto Oy in 1936. Vohlonen incorporated his new liquid-filled capsule into a lightweight wrist-mounted design, the M-311, suitable for use by soldiers, surveyors, hikers, and others navigating while afoot.[3]

Tommo’s story[edit]

In September 1877 a son was born in Vohloja ranch, Orimattila. Parents were Juho and Helena Vohlonen. Later four more siblings were born. This son was named Tuomas. Parents called him Tommo, a nomination that was to follow him all his life, also in more official connotations. Only a few years before his death at the end of 1930’s Tuomas could be seen in official patent papers. By then he was a possessor of many patents and he was just founded a company soon to become a success.

During the siblings’ childhood Juho Vohlonen had to leave his home ranch, which was typical of the time for a younger child. The family moved to Lappeenranta for a short while, then to Kekäleenmäki, Ruokolahti. There Juho Vohlonen worked as smith and also did some farming.

Helena and Juho Vohlonen weren’t highly educated, but they had decided their children will get the highest education possible. Including daughters, which wasn’t very typical in late 1800’s. The children seem to have been as determined as their parents. Kekäleenmäki was a distant district, but that’s where they left to their education. Earlier stages were done in Ruokolahti, later stages in Lappeenranta. The college was located in Vyborg and the boys went skiing 50km between Lappeenranta and Vyborg every weekend.

Tommo studied in Finnish polytechnic to become a surveyor.

Vohlonen siblings were all interested in outdoor living, sports, hunting and fishing. Tommo’s brother was a competition-level wrestler trained by an olympic winner Verner Weckman, but still Tommo defeated him easily in wrestling.

Tommo was attracted by wilderness, distant districts, snow fields and open waters. Even when he had settled in Helsinki, he travelled to Saimaa as often as possible. There he had a small boat with outboard motor. And there lived his sisters.

In one of his fishing trips he hit the underwater rocks, broke his outboard and he had to row. Luckily he ended up on long sandy shore. Then he sat for a while, looking around, then walked to the nearby farm and bought the beach. Tommo built a sauna on that beach and spent time there whenever possible. He bathed for hours, occassionally swimming or rolling in snow.

Orienteering was one of Tommo’s favorites, and eventually it became the work of his life. Tommo was a strong man. He could bend a horse’s shoe with bare hands. But his other interest was sensitivity and precision, as it became seen in his work with compasses.

This section is fully based on Finnish text by Kastehelmi Nikkanen in 2006.[4]

Tuomas Vohlonen – a famous Finnish innovating genius[edit]

Over twenty patented innovations. Most notable of them is the march compass, a founder of magneto industry of Finland, applying numerous ideas in practice. Behind all this is Tuomas Vohlonen. He was born in September 24th, 1877, in Orimattila. He became a graduate in Vyborg and studied in polytechnic.

Life of an inventor wasn’t always easy. Poverty and financial difficulties were frequently present. Often he couldn’t afford patenting the innovations. Deceitful friends stole his ideas and took advance of them. Even foreign agents were after them and sometimes succeeded in stealing them before he managed to get a patent.

Engineer Tuomas Vohlonen died in March 27th, 1939, at age of 61. He is buried in Ruokolahti, Finland.

During his lifetime, Ruokolahti was an important place for him. He spent some of his free times there. There he was also lecturing about orienteering, teaching the usage of compass and clarified the importance of orienteering. He thought orienteering was essential for everyone. It was also a fun and healthy sport and a pleasant way of spending time, he teached.

During childhood he was eager in sports, and that’s why many of his inventions were related with sports and especially with skiing and orienteering. Because of his inventions with compass, Finland is a leading country in orienteering, it’s been said.

His innovation with ski bindings has been playing an important role in development of Finnish skiing. In 1930’s, living in Helsinki, he started developing the bindings. Because of new version of binding, also the ski boots had to be redeveloped.

Oldest of Vohlonen’s innovations, also patented, was to turn the compass needle into vertical position. Through this, the needle stabilized more quickly and reading accuracy improved.

In 1930’s Vohlonen returned developing the compass, this leading to the birth of his well-known and acknowledged march compass. It became his most well-known innovation with many patents. The needle chamber could be sealed hermetically and the chamber had a waved bottom plate to stabilize the pressure. He also improved many nautical and airplane compasses. During the same time, he developed a device for measuring height, for example of trees.

For orienteerers he developed a holder for compass. It was named PIVO, an abbreviation of names Pihkala and Vohlonen.

Spark devices of combustion engines were of his interest in 1920’s. He built them in Pori, even having a small factory for them, and went on with them later in Helsinki, having them produced under brand Mars. Because of his innovation, the frame of magneto could be manufactured from a single piece. He also invented a starting assistant for magneto, which gave out a full spark even with slow revolutions.

In farming he developed a classifier for grain, and for forestry he developed a plow, both later fabricated by Rosenlew. These were both patented.

In surveying, in addition of the tree height measuring device, he developed a device for angular measuring and also other assistive gear.

Where ever he was, worked or faced new things, he thought: is this good enough, could this be improved? At the same time he calculated the costs and profits caused by possible improvements. When he invented something, he also thought of the possibilites of sales if in mass production.

It is said the inventor has to be discontent, otherwise there will be no inventions. That’s what Vohlonen was. There was nothing he could have approved as good enough. He even developed a method for fast reading and learning. A student, having graduated in record time, has revealed having used the Vohlonen’s method.

His slogan was: Out of all innovations, the most innovative innovation is to innovate an innovation. As an inventor, he was tireless. It’s been told, when he was focused on his inventions, he forgot about eating and days and nights.

Having been a leader of his new-found company and just as he was about to see his efforts bear fruit, a thread of life was suddenly cut for him. In the news of his burial, it was told the whole staff of the factory was there to say the last goodbye to a hard-working man, who, through his working, didn’t get to enjoy much more than the joy of working so characteristic for him.

The name of Tuomas Vohlonen may have been forgotten, but his work lives. His inventions serve the whole nation of Finland. His inventions helped Finland during hard times. Because of his inventions, Finland has been noted in the world map.

This section is fully based on an article in Finnish newspaper Etelä-Saimaa in April 13th, 1969, written by Sulo Veikko Siitonen. [5] [6]


  1. ^ Suunto Oy, Suunto Company History, December 2001 Article
  2. ^ Suunto Oy, Suunto Company History, December 2001 Article
  3. ^ Suunto Oy, Suunto Company History, December 2001 Article
  4. ^ http://www.prh.fi/stc/attachments/Kertomus_Tommosta.pdf
  5. ^ Etelä-Saimaa, April 13th, 1969
  6. ^ http://www.prh.fi/stc/attachments/Artikkeli_ES.pdf