Dow, Herbert H.
Herbert H. Dow
American chemist Herbert H. Dow (1866-1930) founded the chemical company that bears his name, in 1897 in Midland, Michigan. He was both a gifted chemist and a savvy entrepreneur, and held more than 90 patents for his research, achievements that represented both significant scientific advances and the beginning of American dominance in the field of modern industrial chemistry. Harrison E. Howe, who profiled the company founder in the Dictionary of American Biography, noted that “Dow was an early exponent of the philosophy that a company should make more cheaply and better than anyone else the product in which it is interested, then pass the benefits of that advantage to the consumer.”
Born on February 26, 1866, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, Herbert Henry Dow was the son of an inventor and mechanical engineer, Joseph Henry Dow. The family's roots in America stretched back to 1637 and an ancestor who was listed as a resident of Watertown, Massachusetts. When Dow was still an infant, the family— which would expand to include his three younger sisters— moved back to their original hometown of Derby, Connecticut. Joseph Dow went on to work for the Derby Shovel Manufacturing Company, and in 1878 the family moved once again, this time to Cleveland, Ohio, where the senior Dow was hired by the Chisholm Shovel-Works.
Fascinated by Brines
Dow inherited his father's knack for mechanics and invention, and devised an early prototype of a chicken egg incubator when the family was still living in Connecticut. After graduating from high school in 1884, Dow remained close to home for college, enrolling at Cleveland's Case School of Applied Science, which later became Case Institute of Technology and finally Case Western Reserve University. His major was chemistry, and during his time at Case he became intrigued by brine, or water with a high salt content. Brines can be made by adding salt to water, and from ancient times it was used by humans as a food preservative. Ocean saltwater is also considered a brine, and eons earlier, the shifting of land masses resulted in large underground deposits of sea water from the time when there were immense inland oceans in North America. The area that stretched from Ontario south and west to Kentucky was known to contain large underground deposits of this type of brine.
Brines contained bromine, the chemical element on the periodic table with the symbol “Br.” In Dow's childhood, bromines were used to make sedative medications, and later new applications were discovered for its use in the nascent photographic film-developing industry. As a college student, he was interested in even more future possibilities, and began to conduct his dissertation research on the Ohio-area underground brines. His professors suggested that Dow write a paper on his brine analysis and present it at a coming meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Cleveland. He found that both Canton, Ohio, and Midland, Michigan, were brine-rich sites. Michigan had become a major salt producer at the time, with brine pools left to evaporate in the mid-state Saginaw Valley area and the resulting salt packaged and sold on the consumer market.
Dow earned his bachelor of science degree from Case in 1888 and was hired by the Huron Street Hospital College in Cleveland as a chemistry professor. In 1889 he applied for and received his first patent, which involved a more efficient way to extract bromine from brine. He founded a company to exploit this process, but it soon failed. Despite the setback, the young chemist still had some financial supporters, and in 1890 they funded a second venture, this time in Midland, Michigan. Dow moved there in August of 1890 to establish a plant and offices for this venture, which was called the Midland Chemical Company.
Fired from Company
In 1891, after more experimentation, Dow had a new breakthrough in bromine extraction, and earned another patent. This one came to be called the “Dow process,” and was the first to use electrolysis, or the application of electrical current. This eliminated several steps in bromine manufacturing and represented a significant breakthrough in industrial chemistry. “A direct current generator was required for this Dow process,” noted Howe, “and although it was a most difficult piece of equipment to obtain at that time, one was installed in 1892 and may be regarded as the first commercially successful installation of an electrochemical plant in America.” Dow thought that electrolysis could be used in other chemical manufacturing applications, but his financial backers disagreed, and they fired him.
Returning to Cleveland, Dow continued his experiments on his own, this time in extracting chloride and caustic soda from salt in its pure form, the element sodium chloride, or NaCl on the periodic table. Caustic soda, otherwise known as lye or sodium hydroxide, had also been used by humans for centuries, particularly in the making of soap, but it was also coming into use as a bleaching agent in paper production, which had begun to soar in the nineteenth century. Chloride was also used to make chlorine, another potentially lucrative product for the industrial and consumer markets. Dow asked several friends and alumni from Case for financial help in backing a new company. In 1896 he moved back to Midland, this time with his wife and children, and in May of 1897 formally established the Dow Chemical Company. Its manufacture of both bleaching powder and bromine using the Dow process proved such a success that by 1900 the company bought Midland Chemical, the firm that had fired him just five years before.
Broke the German Cartel
Dow's company sold bromine in the United States for 36 cents per pound. In its first years in business, looking to expand internationally, Dow was warned not to challenge a major European supplier, a German government-subsidized group of several industrial-chemical manufacturers known as Die Deutsche Bromkonvention, or the German Bromine Cartel. The Bromkonvention had fixed the price of bromine at 49 cents per pound on the world market, and threatened to flood the United States market with bromine at an even cheaper price than Dow's 36 cents, should Dow Chemical try to move beyond the U.S. borders with the product. In 1904 Dow decided to ignore the threat, and started to export his company's bromine to England and then Japan. The European cartel was so irate that it sent an executive, by ship and then railway, all the way to Midland, a trip of several weeks at the time. The company president, however, told the Bromkonvention ambassador, Hermann Jacobsohn, that he was unaware of any formal agreements that fixed the price of bromine on the world market, or a list of who could and could not sell it.
In response, the Bromkonvention followed through and reduced the price of their bromine in the United States to just 15 cents per pound. In a masterful stroke of business acumen, Dow had agents of his in New York City secretly buy it as it came off the cargo ships. Dow Chemical then repackaged it, marked it up to 27 cents per pound, and exported it overseas. At the same time, the company's U.S. bromine sales were put on hold. Dow began to reap enormous profits from the ruse, which went undiscovered by the Bromkonvention for some time. They kept reducing their price per pound, and were finally selling bromine below cost. Finally, the two sides entered into an agreement that the Bromkonvention would be allowed to retain its lucrative German market rights, while Dow Chemical would keep its American clients—but all other markets were open to competition.
Profited from Modern Warfare Needs
As he had predicted, Dow found many other uses for brine, and developed methods of extracting caustic soda, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals from it. During World War I his company enjoyed an extraordinary stroke of luck when the British Royal Navy set up a formidable naval blockade of all German ports, which prevented Dow's biggest competitors—Bromkonvention members such as BASF, Hoechst, and Bayer—from accessing markets outside Europe. Dow Chemical further benefited from wartime production needs, such as tear gas, which used bromine in its manufacturing process. Magnesium was used in making incendiary flares, and phenol, also known as carbolic acid, was used in explosives manufacturing. This later became one of the building blocks for Bakelite, the first synthetic resin and the predecessor of plastic.
After World War I, Dow guided his company into an ever-expanding array of processes and products. One division discovered that magnesium was ideal when combined with other metals in making automotive engine pistons, and DowMetal was established to capitalize on this growing market. Dow's earliest experiments in the chicken coop progressed later in his life to gardening, and he experimented with a number of chemicals on his home garden and orchard dating all the way back to the 1890s. In 1907 Dow Chemical introduced lime sulfur, a fruit tree fungicide, and by 1910 had established an agricultural chemicals division that went on to develop some of the world's first synthetic pesticides.
Dow died on October 15, 1930, of cirrhosis of the liver, in Rochester, Minnesota. He had traveled there for treatment at the Mayo Clinic, but fell into a coma after surgery, from which he never recovered. He was survived by his wife, the former Grace Ball, with whom he had seven children. By this point he had established such a strong leadership model that the scores of researchers and executives who succeeded him at Dow Chemical Company continued to press forward and make it the world's second largest chemical manufacturer a century after its founding. In the post-World War II years, the company ventured into consumer products, and held the first U.S. patents for such ubiquitous items as Saran Wrap, Ziploc bags, and Styrofoam.
Doyle, Jack, Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical & the Toxic Century, Common Courage Press, 2004.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: to 1940, American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958.
Chemical Week, December 22, 1999; November 21, 2007. New York Times, October 16, 1930.
“Herbert H. Dow,” Ohio History Central, http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=109 (January 3, 2008).