Midland Marvel

Herbert Henry Dow, founder of Dow Chemical, developed multiple advances in the chemical industry and received more than 90 patents. // Photos courtesy of Science History Insitute and National Registry
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Herbert Dow portrait
Herbert Henry Dow, founder of Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, had a mindset as an inventor and entrepreneur to “always do it better.”

The 42,000 residents in the prosperous mid-Michigan city of Midland are fortunate their most prominent benefactor, Herbert Henry Dow, outgrew a boyhood fascination with raising ostriches in South Africa.

Instead of focusing his genius on the large birds, Dow made chemistry his life’s work, developing efficient processes for extracting valuable chemical elements from brine found in abundance in the ground in the surrounding Saginaw Valley. The immense wealth he created, and his legacy Dow companies, underwrote Midland’s future reputation as one of the best places to live in Michigan.

At age 12, after reading a magazine article on difficulties South African farmers faced raising ostriches, young Herbert began researching how to successfully incubate their eggs.
The boy’s inclination for problem-solving came out of the close relationship he enjoyed with his father, Joseph Henry Dow, a mechanical engineer who was described as a tinkerer, an inventor, and a problem-solver.

During Herbert’s childhood, his father brought home engineering problems from his job, and father and son would work on solutions. As a result, the youngster took on his father’s aptitude for tinkering. His family noted that he tended to a garden, constantly worked on puzzles, and kept journals of the creative ideas that came to him daily.

His study of the ostrich problem revealed that their eggs had to be kept at a constant temperature with the proper level of humidity during the incubation process.

Naturally, he invented an incubator to automatically control temperature in the container in which the eggs were hatched. His first 39 devices failed. Undeterred, he succeeded with his 40th attempt. This first experiment with invention was a lesson in perseverance that shaped his career as a trailblazer in the chemical industry.

A Dow company profile credits the younger Dow and his father for inventing a small steam turbine used by the U.S. Navy to power torpedoes. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Dow’s later inventions included advances in steam and internal combustion engines, automatic furnace controls, and water seals.

His pioneering work in the chemical industry resulted in his filing for more than 90 patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to Dow’s corporate records.

Herbert Henry Dow was born in 1866 in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. The family moved to Connecticut and then to Ohio, where he enrolled in the Case School of Applied Science, the forerunner of Case Western University in Cleveland.

His first major class study was the chemical composition of fuel used to fire up boilers. While testing gas wells in Ohio and Michigan, he was introduced to brine by a worker who discovered the bitter liquid substance while drilling a well. Dow’s analysis of brine samples collected from wells in Ohio and Michigan showed a large presence of lithium and bromine, a chemical used at the time in medicines and photography.

Dow also learned the largest underground sea of prehistoric brine in the country was trapped beneath the small Michigan town of Midland. Once a booming lumber town, Midland — which boasted of having 14 saloons — was on the decline as the surrounding abundant white pine forests were harvested into extinction largely due to demand for homes.

Dow suspected that, in addition to bromine, the salty solution likely contained other valuable minerals that had consumer value.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1888, Dow delved into the nascent field of halogen chemistry. Finding a faster and cheaper way of separating bromine from brine became his major challenge.

Bromine production at that time was a costly and time-consuming process involving heating and evaporating brine before distilling it. His idea, for which he filed a patent in 1899, used bleaching powder to extract bromine from brine. With that breakthrough, Dow opened his first company: Canton Chemical Co.

His success as an inventor was not matched by his business prowess, as Canton Chemical went bankrupt within a year. In 1890, Dow moved to Midland where he set up Midland Chemical Co. and continued experimenting with brine.

Following his mindset to “always do it better,” Dow researched the emerging technology of electricity and determined it could provide the most efficient process for bromine production, and could possibly unlock other valuable chemical elements from brine.

However, he first had to overcome two major hurdles: He had no capital to invest in developing his idea, and at the time Midland did not have electricity. Dow’s solution was to rent a barn next to a flour mill where he convinced the owner to allow him to use the mill’s 5-volt generator, which was powered by a steam engine, to carry out his experiments.
For weeks on end, he worked 18-hour days and slept in the barn. Locals referred to him as “Crazy Dow.”

Five months later, with the faint electricity supplied by the underpowered generator, he used the process of electrolysis to produce bromine from his brine samples. On Sept. 29, 1891, Dow registered a patent for his invention, dubbed “the Dow process.” It became the accelerant for his companies — which would, over time, dominate the nascent chemical industry.

Living in the barn also gave him a chance to meet Grace Ball, a young teacher who taught in a nearby school. The two were married on Nov. 16, 1892, and had four daughters and three sons.

Dow’s success with electrolysis attracted financial backers for his purchase of 10 acres of land on the banks of the Tittabawassee River, where he dug two brine wells and erected the earliest Dow factory buildings.

However, his constant quest for innovation and diversification soon put him at odds with his investors, who blocked him from pursuing using his electrolysis process to produce chlorine and bleaching powder.

Undaunted, he returned to his alma mater in Cleveland, where he recruited new backers among the faculty. In 1895, he formed the Dow Process Co.

Dow patent
Dow received a patent on Sept. 29, 1891, for his process of extracting bromine from natural brine or from bitter waters. A huge deposit of brine was located in Midland.

His subsequent breakthroughs with chlorine would unlock the development of a wide array of other commercial products.

In 1896, Dow moved his growing family and company back to Midland. The next year he official changed the company name to The Dow Chemical Co., and it absorbed his original venture, Midland Chemical Co.

For the next 30 years, Dow served as the president and general manager of Dow Chemical.
As a businessman he proved to have a killer instinct with rivals. In 1902, he beat back a challenge from bleach makers in Britain by cutting his price for bleach so low that the British companies could no longer survive.

Six years later, he began exporting bromine, to the displeasure of a German cartel that had a lock on the market. The Germans responded by flooding the U.S. market with cheap bromine to drive him out of business.

Dow returned the serve by purchasing as much of the cheap German bromine as possible, repackaging it, and selling it for a profit in Germany. The Germans capitulated in 1908 and raised their prices.

According to the Midland Daily News, Herbert Dow’s inventions put Midland on the map as “The City of Modern Explorers,” attracting the best and brightest young people to move there. At one time there were more millionaires and more people with doctorate degrees living in Midland than any municipality its size in the world, the newspaper reported.

By this time Dow had built The Pines, the only home he and his family would ever live in, on a large tract of land at one end of Main Street. The acreage allowed him to return to his childhood interest in gardening. Initially he planted 92 trees that included 35 different varieties of fruit. Eventually Dow had 5,000 apple trees that supplied fresh fruit he donated to children in Midland County schools.

Dow’s garden was the forerunner of today’s 110-acre Dow Gardens, one of the city’s most popular attractions, which also includes the family home, now designated a National Historic Landmark.

Dow’s health began deteriorating after he returned from a two-month trip to Japan in 1929. The following spring he went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where exploratory surgery revealed cirrhosis of the liver. His lifelong avoidance of alcohol prompted theories that the condition could have been caused by exposure to chemicals, or a 19th century practice by scientists who were trained to taste chemicals.

Dow didn’t survive a second surgery and died at age 64 on Oct. 12, 1930. He was succeeded by his 33-year-old son, Willard H. Dow, who led the company through the Great Depression and World War II.

The last family member to serve as CEO of the company was Herbert D. Doan, the founder’s grandson. He took over in 1962 and stepped down at age 48 in 1971.

The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, established in his memory by his widow shortly after his death, continues to flourish. The organization has donated millions of dollars for the betterment of Midland and other communities in Michigan.