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The Man Who Invented Elsie, the Borden Cow

The Man Who Invented Elsie, the Borden Cow

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"Where's Borden?" someone yelled.

"Drowned, I do most sincerely hope. He richly deserves it," a soaking guest responded.

Borden's next try, not an entire disaster, was meat biscuits. In the 1840s he boiled 120 pounds of beef down to 10 pounds, dehydrating it, mixed flour with the residue, kneaded the substance into biscuits and baked them. A navy doctor complained that many people found them "absolutely disgusting," something like melted glue and molasses. Still, during the gold rush, a party of forty-niners carried Borden's biscuits to California, and people ate them on an Arctic expedition. The Scientific American described the biscuit as "one of the most valuable inventions that has ever been brought forward." But the Army, which might have made the biscuit a financial success, decided it was "not only unpalatable, but failed to appease the craving of hunger—producing head ache, nausea, and great muscular depression." The biscuit business failed, driving Borden to bankruptcy in 1852.

"I am entirely out of money," he wrote a friend. "I have had to parcel out my family among my friends and relatives. My wife [his second] is in one place, my daughters in another and every piece of property I have is mortgaged. I labor 15 hours a day." Such failures did not dampen Borden's faith in his inventions. "There is no use in looking back," he told a friend. "If I did, I should soon be dead or in a mad house."

Harking back to his earlier thoughts on condensing and preserving perishables, he began trying to condense everything. "I mean to put a potato into a pillbox, a pumpkin into a tablespoon, the biggest sort of watermelon into a saucer....The Turks made acres of roses into attar of roses....I intend to make attar of every thing."

Sometimes the problem was purely commercial. He condensed 6.5 gallons of apple cider into one gallon, but had few takers. During the Civil War, he broke one of his most rigid rules — no Sunday work — to produce concentrated blackberry juice. He shipped the entire batch for free to Gen. William T. Sherman, who wrote back to thank Borden for doing more than all the Army surgeons to overcome an epidemic of dysentery.

Borden died at 72, admired and liked by everyone who knew him, those who thought he was a genius and those who thought he had a screw loose. The Borden Family of Companies, named after Gail Borden, does nearly $3 billion of business a year. It sells industrial chemicals, consumer adhesives, housewares and packaged foods — and licenses other companies to sell milk, ice cream and cheese under the Borden name.

By Carolyn Hughes Crowley

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