Herbert H. Dow
Portrait of Herbert Dow in 1888.
Herbert H. Dow was born on February 26, 1866, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. The Dow family remained in Canada for only six weeks after Herbert's birth, returning to their hometown of Derby, Connecticut. Dow's father, Henry Dow, was a mechanical engineer and, in 1873, accepted a position with Derby Shovel Manufacturing Company. Five years later, this company moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Henry Dow and his family accompanied the firm.
While still a child, Herbert Dow engaged in scientific experiments and invented numerous products with his father's assistance. Together, the two men designed a new turbine that the United States Navy utilized for years to power torpedoes. In 1884, Herbert enrolled in the Case School of Applied Science and studied chemistry.
While a student, Dow studied underground brine, a liquid substance leftover from no longer existent oceans. He realized that numerous chemicals existed in the brine, and he tried to develop a way to extract them. He was first successful in extracting bromine, a compound used in sleep medicines and in the photography industry. Upon graduation from the Case School of Applied Science, Dow became a chemistry professor at the Huron Street Hospital College in Cleveland, Ohio. Here, he continued his research and, in 1889, developed a cost effective way to extract the bromine. He left his teaching position to start his own company, but the firm went bankrupt in less than a year.
Impressed with Dow's discovery, several associates helped him establish the Midland Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan. His cofounders wanted the company to focus on bromine production, but Dow hoped to extract additional minerals from the brine. As a result of this difference of opinion, Dow was fired. He returned to Cleveland, where he began the Dow Process Company. He quickly discovered ways to extract additional minerals from the brine, including bromine, chlorine, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. These compounds proved useful in a number of industries during this period, making Dow a wealthy man. He moved his company to Midland, Michigan, where he established the Dow Chemical Company in 1896. Eventually Dow Chemical absorbed the Midland Chemical Company.
By 1900, Herbert Dow had become one of the United States' leading scientists. He attained his first patent in 1889 and had received ninety patents by the early 1930s. Most of these patents dealt with chemicals. Dow, however, did face stiff competition in the economic arena. Germany dominated chemical production during this period. Dow, however, was able to sell some of his chemicals more cheaply than his German competitors. For example, Dow sold his bromine for thirty-six cents per pound, while German companies sold their bromine for forty-nine cents per pound. The German companies threatened to flood Dow's markets with more cheaply priced bromine to drive the American out of business.
Dow refused to succumb to German pressure to increase the price of his bromine. Rather, Dow began to sell his bromine for a cheaper price in Europe, hurting the profits of the Germans. The Germans retaliated by selling bromine to American business owners for only fifteen cents per pound. Undaunted, Dow purchased large quantities of the Germans' fifteen cent bromine and then resold it in Europe at twenty-seven cents, undercutting the German price on this continent by twenty-two cents! The Germans did not realize that Dow was behind the cheaper price in Europe. Even worse for the Germans, they repeatedly cut the price of bromine in the United States. Before long, bromine was selling for 10.5 cents in the United States, and Dow was continuing to repackage and sell this bromine in Europe for twenty-seven cents. After four years, Dow and the Germans finally negotiated an agreement. The Germans would no longer sell bromine in the United States, and Dow would not sell his bromine in Germany. The two sides would compete for customers in the rest of the world.
Dow continued to prosper with the outbreak of World War I. Germans had long dominated chemical production, and now, with trade temporarily ended with Germany, the United States had to find new sources to obtain chemicals. Dow expanded the Dow Chemical Company's products, producing new chemicals for explosives, pain relievers, and additional chemicals necessary during wartime. Following the war, Dow focused his energies on the automobile industry, producing light-weight parts for car engines that proved to be more fuel efficient. The Dow Chemical Company also improved gasoline.
Herbert Dow remained active in the company until his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1930.
- Campbell, Murray. Herbert H. Dow: Pioneer in Creative Chemistry. N.p.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951.
- Cashman, Sean. America in the Gilded Age. N.p.: NYU Press, 1993.
- Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. N.p.: Belknap Press, 1993.
- Murdock, Eugene. Buckeye Empire: An Illustrated History of Ohio Enterprise. N.p.: Windsol, 1988.
- Painter, Nell Irwin. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. N.p.: W.W. Norton, 2008.
- Porter, Glenn. The Rise of Big Business, 1860-1920. N.p.: Harlan Davidson, 2006.