It is an oddly shaped copper kettle officially designated as a "vacuum pan." It sits in a corner of the Agricultural Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, a relic of the one great invention by an inveterate tinkerer, almost all of whose other inventions failed.
The man was Gail Borden. The memorable invention was condensed milk, though most of us are more likely to think of its symbol, Elsie, the Borden Cow. Before Borden, milk was a child's food, difficult to keep fresh, likely to carry germs — as Louis Pasteur would prove — impossible to preserve safely for more than a day or two. After Borden received a patent in 1856 for "producing concentrated milk in vacuo," condensed milk became an important part of the dairy industry. For the first time milk could be kept pure and storable without benefit of refrigeration. For the first time, too, it could be distributed over great distances.
Borden was 54 years old that year. He had had little more than a year of formal schooling and possessed no scientific training whatever. But all his life he was consumed with a passion for research, and a desire to improve daily life. Years before Pasteur's experiments, he sensed that a relationship existed between dirt, freshness and the quality of milk. "Milk is a living fluid," Borden would write in 1856, which "as soon as drawn from the cow begins to die, change, and decompose." The perception sharpened in 1851 when, returning from a trip to England, he was devastated at seeing children die aboard his steamer apparently as a result of scanty milk from shipboard cows. He went back to a notion that he had long held that all sorts of foods could be condensed and preserved, which would make them safer.
Borden was not the only one who tried to keep milk from spoiling, but the others generally cooked it in the open air over a hot fire, and it always burned, became discolored or turned sour. Borden's better idea used a vacuum pan similar to the ones he had seen the Shakers of New Lebanon, New York, using as they condensed fruit juice. Inside his vacuum pan a heating coil warmed the milk slowly and evenly, allowing gradual evaporation without excessive heat and scalding. Milk is three-quarters water; after the water had vaporized, what was left was condensed milk.
"Milk will be as common as sugar" on shipboard, he wrote in 1855. After two false starts, he opened a milk condensing factory in Wassaic, New York, and soon was peddling condensed milk door-to-door. He pioneered in its sanitary handling by enforcing strict health guidelines on farmers. If they wanted to sell him milk, he insisted they wash udders thoroughly before milking, sweep barns clean, spread manure away from milking stalls, and scald and dry their wire-cloth strainers morning and night. The milk business boomed. In 1858, the Committee of the Academy of Medicine was quoted as declaring that Borden's milk was "unequaled" in purity, durability and economy.
When the Civil War came, the federal government ordered condensed milk as a field ration; soldiers home on leave told their families about milk that stayed fresh indefinitely. Borden's production of it for the Army never caught up with demand.
By the late 1860s condensed milk had changed the dairy business from a haphazard farmer-to-consumer operation into a major industry. Condensed milk made Borden rich, respected and famous. But that success came only after a series of often ludicrous failures.
One of the first involved his attempt to wipe out yellow fever in Galveston, Texas, where he lived in 1844. That year, his wife, age 32, and 4-year-old son contracted the disease, swiftly sickened and died.
Shocked and grieving, Borden thought hard about yellow fever. It mostly struck in summer, abating after the first frost, and some 60 years before Walter Reed discovered that mosquitoes carried the fever, Borden decided he would simply chill the dread disease out of existence with a giant refrigerator. He planned to use ether as a cooling agent to help cool his fellow citizens back to health. "I mean to keep you for a week as if under a white frost," he wrote. "If we had the refrigerators ready I could lock up every soul in a temporary winter." Fortunately nobody volunteered.
He also launched his "terraqueous machine," a combination wagon and sailboat supposed to run equally well on land or sea. One night he invited guests for a midnight dinner concocted, he explained, out of material "from which, if you knew what they were... you would turn with loathing and horror. I have transmuted even the dirt itself into delicacies." After dinner, Borden led his guests to the machine, a horse and wagon with a mast and a square sail in front rigged with pulleys and a device to make the wheels serve as makeshift paddle wheels. Screaming passengers made him stop at water's edge. On another outing, he rolled the ponderous contraption down into the water, where it instantly capsized, dumping everybody into the Gulf of Mexico.