HERBERT HENRY DOW Biography - Theater, Opera and Movie personalities


Biography » theater opera and movie personalities » herbert henry dow


Herbert Henry Dow was one of the most eminent chemical pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his lifetime, Dow received over 100 patents, introduced many chemical firsts in America, and received the prestigious Perkin Medal in 1930. He applied electrochemical technology for industrial production of chemicals (e.g. bromine).


He developed methods of extracting bromine, magnesium, and iodine from brine; virtually all metallic magnesium is produced by a Dow process. Dow also developed the lightweight alloy Dowmetal and produced the first synthetic indigo dye in the U.S. Both a chemist and an astute entrepreneur, Dow built The Dow Chemical Company that is a worldwide chemical giant of today.


The oldest of three siblings, Herbert H. Dow was born in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, on February 26, 1866. Dow’s parents and all his ancestors were native New Englanders. Dow’s parents moved the family back to their hometown of Derby, Connecticut, when Herbert Dow was just six weeks old. Dow’s father, Joseph Henry Dow (always referred to as Henry), was an inventor and mechanical engineer who worked as a machinist for several local companies where he made small technical improvements and maintained the machines; he was working mostly in the field of steam turbines.


Henry Dow found secure employment in 1873 with Derby Shovel Manufacturing Company. The company relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1878, and Henry Dow moved the family there later that same year, when Herbert was twelve years old.


Young Herbert displayed prodigious abilities in many capacities. Herbert’s father was one factor, if not the greatest, in how Herbert Dow was influenced in his ways of thinking. A father was expected to be a creature of vast dignity and if necessary wear a beard to prove it.


It was the Victorian days and it was a rare father indeed who actually romped and played around with his children. Henry discussed his ideas of turbine with young Herbert as if the boy was a professional engineer. He showed Herbert how to make a turbine and even how to modernize a pin factory. Whether Herbert was selling vegetables or taking an engine apart, his father was there to encourage him. Herbert possessed not only his father’s inventive genius but even better business acumen.


Herbert’s boyhood was very happy and active. Even by age ten he financed his voyage to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia all by himself. He earned his money with his own technique for distributing handbills. He made a man’s wages and put his salary in his own bank account. He maintained a garden, held a job, assisted his father with many mechanical problems, and invented an incubator for chicken eggs all before age twelve. As a high school student, Herbert Dow co-invented with his father a small steam turbine, which the U.S. Navy used for many years in torpedo propulsion.


His lifelong interest in generating electrical power efficiently begun while he was growing up. He was always inventing as a boy and later wanted to further extend his career by studying architecture. Herbert Dow graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1884 and immediately received a scholarship to Case School of Applied Science, now known as Case Western Reserve University, but architecture wasn’t offered there. He opted for chemistry and was an industrious student, who always was very persistent in his work.


While attending Case, Dow first became interested in prehistoric brine trapped underground at Midland, Michigan. As part of his thesis, Dow conducted brine research on several sites in Ohio and throughout the U.S., including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan.


Dow’s research focused on the various chemicals besides sodium chloride that are often present in brine. Herbert received threats from fellow students in his classes because of the pungent smells he created from his experiments in recovering bromine from brine salt wells. Despite this he spurned classroom routine to follow his own inclinations in the laboratory.


Dow’s future as an inventive chemist was triggered when he watched the drilling of an oil well outside Cleveland. At the well site he noticed that brine had come to the surface. The oil men considered the oozing brine a nuisance. One of them asked Dow to taste it.


“Bitter, isn’t it,” the driller noted. “It certainly is,” Dow added. “Now why would that brine be so bitter?” the driller asked. “I don’t know,” Dow said, “but I’d like to find out.” He took a sample to his lab, tested it, and found it contained both lithium (which helped explain the bitterness) and bromine.


His brine analysis indicated that samples from Canton, Ohio, and Midland, Michigan, were richest in bromine in ionic form. In Dow’s day, bromine was a primary ingredient in medicines as a sedative. Moreover, bromine was used in the photographic industry, which was then a new and developing enterprise. Dow recognized the marketable properties of bromine and he decided to enter the bromine business.


The key to selling bromine was finding a way to separate it cheaply from brine. The standard method of extracting bromine was to evaporate the brine using the leftover wood scraps from the fast-disappearing lumber industry for fuel; remove the sodium chloride, which crystallized first; then add an oxidizing agent to the remaining liquid, which contained bromine ions; and finally distill the bromine. Dow thought this method was expensive and inefficient.


Why did the salt, which was often unmarketable, have to be removed? Was the use of heat, which was very expensive to apply, really necessary to separate the bromine? And why throw the rest of the brine away? Were there economical methods of removing the chlorine and magnesium also found in brine? The answers to these questions were important to Dow: the United States was ignoring or discarding an ocean of brine right beneath the earth’s surface. If he could extract the chemicals, he could change America’s industrial future.


After graduation the Case School of Applied Science in 1888 with a B.S. degree, Dow took a job as a chemistry professor at the Huron Street Hospital College in Cleveland. He had his own lab, an assistant, and time to work out the bromine problem.


During the next year, he developed two processes-electrolysis and “blowing out.” In electrolysis he used an electric current to help free bromine from the brine; in blowing out he used a steady flow of air through the solution to separate the bromine. Once Dow showed he could use his two methods to make small amounts of bromine, he assumed he could make large amounts and sell it all over the world.


To eliminate the need for the now-costly fuel used in the evaporation and distillation steps, Dow’s ingenious plan, executed in 1889 in Canton, Ohio, was to oxidize the brine first with the proper amount of bleaching powder (calcium hydroxide, calcium chloride, and calcium hypochlorite), thus forming bromine, though it was still dissolved in brine. Next the brine was dipped onto burlap sacks, and in a “blowing-out” process a current of air was passed through the brine-soaked sacks to carry off the bromine gas. The bromine-laden air was then brought into contact with iron or an alkali solution, and the bromine was thereby extracted from the air as FeBr2, or alkali bromines.


After Dow’s first company went bankrupt, in August 1890, Dow was off to Midland, Michigan where he co-founded the Midland Chemical Company in an old, rented gristmill. Midland was a lumbering town with 14 saloons and a doubtful future. There he continued to develop a more efficient process for extracting bromine from the ancient seas under Midland. Just five months later, Dow’s ingenuity produced an electrolytic method of bromine extraction from brine, known as the Dow process. Using a second-hand 15-volt generator that was turned by an old steam engine, Dow was the first to successfully oxidize the bromine by electrolysis in a commercial process.


The bromine market seemed to have potential, but Dow never had enough money because nothing ever worked as he expected it to. Electrolysis was new and untested. His brine cells were too small, and the current he passed through the brine was too weak to free all the bromine. When he strengthened the current, he freed all the bromine, but some chlorine seeped in, too. Instead of being frustrated, Dow would later go into the chlorine business as well. After all, people were making money selling chlorine as a disinfectant. Meanwhile, the chlorine and bromine were corroding his equipment and causing breakdowns. He needed better carbon electrodes, a larger generator, and loyal workers.


Dow found himself working 18-hour days and sleeping at the factory. “Crazy Dow” is what the Midland people called him when he rode his dilapidated bike into town to fetch supplies. Laughs, not dollars, were what most townsfolk contributed to his visionary plans. To survive, Dow had to be administrator, laborer, and fundraiser, too. He looked at his resources, envisioned the possible, and moved optimistically to achieve it.


Bromine plant at the Midland Chemical Company.


After Herbert Dow came to Midland, he married the local school “marm,” Grace Anna Ball, daughter of George Willard and Amelia Eaton Ball, and had a family. In the early days, Grace was known to help her husband with quality control. Their children and grandchildren have been involved in the company over the years and some of their descendants remain involved in the community today.


After the bromine process was producing adequately, Dow next wanted to use electrolysis to make sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and chlorine to be turned into bleaching powder. Unfortunately, Dow’s financial backers wanted Dow to produce only bromine, and in massive quantities. But Dow, being a chemist and keen businessman, knew the lucrative possibilities that the other chemicals found in Midland’s brine would bring. Dow’s financiers refused to back his research and eventually, Dow was fired from Midland Chemical Company. He returned to Ohio where he perfected an electrolytic process to extract chlorine and caustic soda.


With another new process under his belt, Dow moved to Cleveland in 1895 and formed his own company, Dow Process Company. In 1896, Dow moved both company and family back to Midland, where the company’s name officially changed to The Dow Chemical Company in May 1897. From the very beginning, he vowed to make The Dow Chemical Company a research organization, devoted to developing new processes and extracting new products from brine.


The company was an immediate success. Just three years later, Dow Chemical Company absorbed Midland Chemical Company. During Dow’s lifetime the company obtained its bromine, chlorine, sodium, calcium, and magnesium from the brine of ancient seas under Midland, but Dow, like Fritz Haber, developed experimental processes to mine modern seas. Herbert Dow was serving as president and general manager of the Dow Chemical Company until his death.


Herbert Dow became the first person in the world to obtain bromine in commercial quantities by electrolysis. In 1895, he built an electrolytic plant for extracting chlorine, which offered “an enormously great field.” An hour after it began operation, the chlorine plant exploded.


Dow’s first patent was issued in 1889, and by 1933 he had over 90 patents. His inventions included such diverse items as electric light carbons, steam and internal combustion engines, automatic furnace controls, and water seals, but most of his inventions were chemical in nature. Most of his chemical patents were for truly “pioneer” inventions.


The remainder were practical improvements which took halogen science from theory to reality, creating employment and an environment which encouraged a healthy combination of basic and applied research. The combined effect of his inventions was to improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world. Dow was a public-spirited citizen, serving on boards of public works and education for many years. His favorite saying was, “If we can’t do it better than the others, why do it?”


Eventually, Dow Chemical would grow to make many products from Midland’s brine, such as: calcium, magnesium, iodine and sodium compounds in addition to bromine and chlorine. For many common, consumer products, such as Epsom salt, Dow was the largest producer in the world.


For Dow Chemical to become a major corporation, it had to meet the European challenge. The Germans in particular dominated world chemical markets in the 1800s. They had experience, topflight scientists, and monopolies in chemical markets throughout the world. For example, the Germans, with their vast potash deposits, had been the dominant supplier of bromine since it first was mass-marketed in the mid-1800s. Only the United States emerged as a competitor to Germany, and then only as a minor player. Dow and some small firms along the Ohio River sold bromine, but only within the country.


About 30 German firms had combined to form a cartel, Die Deutsche Bromkonvention, which fixed the world price for bromine at a lucrative 49 cents a pound. Customers either paid the 49 cents or they went without. Dow and other American companies sold bromine in the United States for 36 cents. The Bromkonvention made it clear that if the Americans tried to sell elsewhere, the Germans would flood the American market with cheap bromine and drive them all out of business. The Bromkonvention law was, “The U.S. for the U.S. and Germany for the world.”


Dow entered bromine production with these unwritten rules in effect, but he refused to follow them. Instead, he easily beat the cartel’s 49-cent price and courageously sold America’s first bromine in England. He hoped that the Germans, if they found out what he was doing, would ignore it.


Throughout 1904 he merrily bid on bromine contracts throughout the world. After a few months of this, Dow encountered in his office an angry visitor from Germany - Hermann Jacobsohn of the Bromkonvention. Jacobsohn announced he had “positive evidence that [Dow] had exported bromides.” “What of it?” Dow replied. “Don’t you know that you can’t sell bromides abroad?” Jacobsohn asked. “I know nothing of the kind,” Dow retorted. Jacobsohn was indignant. He said that if Dow persisted, the Bromkonvention members would run him out of business whatever the cost. Then Jacobsohn left in a huff.


Dow’s philosophy of business differed sharply from that of the Germans. He was both a scientist and an entrepreneur: he wanted to learn how the chemical world worked, and then he wanted to make the best product at the lowest price. The Germans, by contrast, wanted to discover chemicals in order to monopolize them and extort high prices for their discoveries. Dow wanted to improve chemical products and find new combinations and new uses for chemicals.


The Germans were content to invent them, divide markets among their cartel members, and sell abroad at high prices. Those like Dow who tried to compete with the cartel learned quickly what “predatory price-cutting” meant. The Bromkonvention, like other German cartels, had a “yellow-dog fund,” which was money set aside to use to flood other countries with cheap chemicals to drive out competitors.


Dow, however, was determined to compete with the Bromkonvention. He needed the sales, and he believed his electrolysis produced bromine cheaper than the Germans could. Also, Dow was stubborn and hated being bluffed by a bully. When Jacobsohn stormed out of his office, Dow continued to sell bromine, from England to Japan.


Before long, in early 1905, the Bromkonvention went on a rampage: it poured bromides into America at 15 cents a pound, well below its fixed price of 49 cents and also below Dow’s 36 cents. Jacobsohn arranged a special meeting with Dow in St. Louis and demanded that he quit exporting bromides or else the Germans would flood the American market indefinitely.


The Bromkonvention had the money and the backing of its government, Jacobsohn reminded Dow, and could long continue to sell in the United States below the cost of production. Dow was not intimidated; he was angry and told Jacobsohn he would sell to whomever would buy from him. Dow left the meeting with Jacobsohn screaming threats behind him. As Dow boarded the train from St. Louis, he knew the future of his company - if it had a future - depended on how he handled the Germans.


On that train, Dow worked out a daring strategy. He had his agent in New York discreetly buy hundreds of thousands of pounds of German bromine at the 15-cent price. Then he repackaged and sold it in Europe - including Germany! - at 27 cents a pound. “When this 15-cent price was made over here,” Dow said, “instead of meeting it, we pulled out of the American market altogether and used all our production to supply the foreign demand. This, as we afterward learned, was not what they anticipated we would do.”


Dow secretly hired British and German agents to market his repackaged bromine in their countries. They had no trouble doing so because the Bromkonvention had left the world price above 30 cents a pound. The Germans were selling in the United States far below cost of production, and they hoped to offset their U.S. losses with a high world price.


Instead, the Germans were befuddled. They expected to run Dow out of business; and this they thought they were doing. But why was U.S. demand for bromine so high? And where was this flow of cheap bromine into Europe coming from? Was one of the Bromkonvention members cheating and selling bromine in Europe below the fixed price? The tension in the Bromkonvention was dramatic.


According to Dow, “The German producers got into trouble among themselves as to who was to supply the goods for the American market, and the American agent [for the Germans] became embarrassed by reason of his inability to get goods that he had contracted to supply and asked us if we would take his [15-cent] contracts. This, of course, we refused to do.”


The confused Germans kept cutting U.S. prices-first to 12 cents and then to 10.5 cents a pound. Meanwhile, Dow kept buying cheap bromine and reselling it in Europe for 27 cents. These sales forced the Bromkonvention to drop its high world price to match Dow and that further depleted the Bromkonvention’s resources. Dow, by contrast, improved his foreign sales force, often ran his bromine plants at top capacity, and gained business at the expense of the Bromkonvention and all other American producers, most of whom had shut down after the price-cutting.


Even when the Bromkonvention finally caught on to what Dow was doing, it wasn’t sure how to respond. As Dow said, “We are absolute dictators of the situation.” He also wrote, “One result of this fight has been to give us a standing all over the world. . . . We are . . . in a much stronger position than we ever were.” He added that “the profits are not so great” because his plants had trouble matching the new 27-cent world price. He needed to buy the cheap German bromides to stay ahead, and this was harder to do once the Germans discovered and exposed his repackaging scheme.


The bromine war lasted four years (1904-08), when finally the Bromkonvention invited Dow to come to Germany and work out an agreement. Since they couldn’t crush Dow, they decided to at least work out some deal so they could make money again. The terms were as follows: the Germans agreed to quit selling bromine in the United States; Dow agreed to quit selling in Germany; and the rest of the world was open to free competition. The bromine war was over, but low-priced bromine was now a fact of life.


Dow had more capital from the bromine war to expand his business and challenge the Germans in other markets. For example, Dow entered the dye industry and began producing indigo more cheaply than the dominant German dye cartel. Indigo dye, used primarily in textiles, was consumed in larger amounts than any other dye. Dow Chemical Company was the first American chemical company to make synthetic indigo, shipping out the first indigo dye in March 1917. During World War I, Dow tried to fill several gaps when Germany quit trading with the United States.


Aspirin, procaine (now better known by its trademark name, Novocain), phenol (for explosives), and acetic anhydride (to strengthen airplane wings) were all products Dow began producing more cheaply than the Germans did in the World War I era. As he told the Federal Trade Commission when the war began, “We have been up against the German government in competition, and we believe that we can compete with Germany in any product that is made in sufficient amount, provided we have the time and have learned the tricks of the trade.”


Dow’s favorite new chemical from the war was magnesium. Magnesium, like bromine and chlorine, was one of the basic elements found in Michigan brine. Dow hated throwing it away and had tried since 1896 to produce it effectively and profitably. As a metal, magnesium was one-third lighter than aluminum and had strong potential for industrial use. Magnesium was a chief ingredient in products from Epsom salts to fireworks to cement.


Unfortunately for Dow, the Germans had magnesium deposits near New Stassfurt. So while he was struggling, the Germans succeeded in mining magnesium and using it as an alloy with other metals. In 1907, they had formed the Chloromagnesium Syndikat, or the Magnesium Trust.


Even before the war, Dow began pouring more capital into magnesium, but only during the war did he begin selling his first small amounts. After the war, Dow still could not match Germany’s low cost of production, but he refused to give up. Instead, he plowed millions of dollars into developing magnesium as America’s premier lightweight metal. Part of his problem was the high cost of extracting magnesium; the other problem was the fixation most businessmen had with using aluminum.


The Germans had mixed feelings as they watched Dow struggle with magnesium. On one hand, they were glad to still have their large market share. On the other hand, they were nervous that Dow would soon discover a method to make magnesium more cheaply than they could. Their solution was not to work hard on improving their own efficiency, but to invite Dow to join them in their magnesium cartel and together fix prices for the world.


In a sense, of course, the Germans were paying Dow the strongest compliment possible by asking him to join them, not fight them. What’s interesting, though, is that through the battles with bromine, indigo, phenol, aspirin, and procaine, the Germans persisted in their strategy of using government-regulated cartels to fix prices and control markets. They continued to believe that monopolies were the best path to controlling markets and making profits.


Dow must have been flattered by the German offer, but he refused to join the Magnesium Trust. He had already shown the world that his company-by trying to make the best product at the lowest price-could often beat the large German cartels. Predatory price-cutting, the standard strategy of the German chemical cartels, failed again and again. By using the strategy, the Germans unintentionally helped the smaller Dow secure capital, capture markets, and deliver low prices for his products around the world.


The Dow logo evolved from the doodles of Herbert Dow in 1918. Dow noticed that his employees used to mark shipping containers with four slashes, forming a diamond shape, and the name “DOW” inscribed within the slashes. Dow himself worked over his scribblings with two other staff members, making minor adjustments. Shortly after, the Dow logo was born. By 1919, the Dow logo was internationally recognizable. The logo today looks basically the same as it did on Herbert Dow’s scratch pad more than 80 years ago.


After the War ended, Dow channeled his research into the automotive industry. With so much magnesium left over from War production, Dow researched what beneficial uses this extremely light metal could have. He decided that if magnesium were used to make replacement automobile pistons, it would give cars more speed, better fuel efficiency, and perhaps a little more zip. In Dow’s newly designed Metallurgical Laboratory, Dowmetal was born. Dowmetal pistons found the most success in racing vehicles, from boats to motorcycles. The 1921 Indianapolis 500 winner used Dowmetal pistons in his vehicle.


Inside a Dow research lab in 1926


Continuing in the automobile industry, Herbert Dow worked with General Motors in 1921 to create a “no-knock” gasoline. What resulted was tetraethyl lead, a fuel additive that had a high bromine content. Due to the enormous amounts of bromine needed to produce tetraethyl lead, Dow’s colleagues wondered where he could get such huge quantities of brine from which to extract bromine. To Dow, the answer was obvious—the ocean.


Perkin Medal


The extraction of bromine from seawater would be Herbert Dow’s last significant undertaking. He died from cirrhosis of the liver in October 1930, just seven months after receiving the Perkin Medal “in recognition of his achievements in the production of bromine, alkalies, magnesium and its salts and alloys, and phenols, and for other developments in industrial chemistry resulting from the activities of his company.” Herbert Dow was buried in Midland Cemetery, Michigan, U.S.A.


Willard H. Dow, who took over the Dow Chemical Company after his father’s death, completed his father’s project of extracting bromine from ocean water. The first plant built to extract bromine from seawater opened on the North Carolina coast in 1934. By World War II, Dow plants on the Gulf Coast were in a position to supply magnesium for firebombs and to make lightweight parts for airplanes.


Today, The Dow Chemical Company is the fifth largest chemical company in the world, employing 43,000 people. With 114 manufacturing sites in 33 countries and sales in 164 countries, Dow manufactures and sells more than 2000 chemicals and plastics products around the globe.