The Dow Chemical Company is one of the worlds great producers of chemical products.
Dow Chemical Company, headquartered in Midland, was formed in 1897 and is now celebrating
its 100th birthday, sells over 2,000 chemical-related products worldwide. Dows
beginnings, both in personnel and resources, came from Michigan and although it has
expanded to national stature its home offices and much of its production are still based
in the state. Dow Chemical is currently organized into 15 major businesses and is
engaged in more than 40 joint ventures. Half of its revenues come from international
markets. Dow, which considers itself technology-driven, employs about 4,000
R&D people and spends $30 million a year maintaining and supporting its patent
Deep under the flatlands of Midland, Michigan, lies salt-rich
rocks, rich in magnesium, chlorine, calcium, sodium and bromine. Inside these rocks,
Herbert Dow found the raw materials of creative chemistry. He started on a shoestring and
built for the future when the American chemical industry was young. Potassium bromide and
bleach were Dow Chemicals only products at the turn of the century. Today the
company that carries on his name has more than 700 products. And there seems to be a lot
of unexplored acreage in the worlds chemical frontier.
Herbert Dow, brimming with ideas and painfully short of cash, came to
Midland in 1890. It was a lumbering town with 14 saloons and a doubtful future.
Midlands brine wells were yielding salt and bromine, but the extraction process,
which utilized cheap fuel (waste from sawmills) was ultimately doomed. The great pine and
hardwood forests had yielded to the woodsmans axe and were on the decline.
Dow, as a student chemist at Case School of Applied Science, had worked
out a process for electrolytic extraction of bromine from brine. A family friend put up
his capital--a few thousand dollars--and Dow set up shop in a rented barn. For
electricity, he hooked up a homemade rope drive from the steam engine of a flour mill to a
15-volt generator. To obtain raw material, he reactivated an idle brine well. In seven
years of trial, error and frequent frustration Dow acquired the knowledge that led to the
founding of The Dow Chemical Company in 1897. The electrolytic cells of his tiny Midland
Chemical Company leaked and cavorted. The barrels in which he packed his product shrank.
Cash was hard to come by. Dow sold his first two barrels of potassium bromide at half the
market price because they contained impurities.
But Dows idea--chemical production through continuous
process--was basic. The Midland Chemical Company began to make money. 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
On May 18, 1897, when the present Dow Chemical Company was born, its
first President Albert E. Convers, was a Cleveland tack manufacturer. Herbert Dow was boss
of the works. Dow had planned well. Side by side, The Dow Chemical Company and the Midland
Chemical Company utilized the same brine. The "waste" from the bromine
extraction became the raw material for making bleach.
By 1902, the chlorine and bleach plant had a total capacity of 72 tons
a day. The price of bleaching powder had dropped from $3.50 to $1.68 per hundredweight.
And abroad there were mutterings about the American upstart.
British bleach manufacturers, ignoring production costs, formed a
syndicate to cut prices and drive Dow out of business. Herbert Dow won this
"war" by cutting prices even lower. But his company lost $90,000 in income to do
it. To recoup, Dow expanded his product line, although sometimes the uses were hard to
foresee. A new process to manufacture chloroform caught Herbert Dows eye. The
process involved making sulfur chloride, reacting it with carbon bisulphide, producing
carbon tetrachloride, which then was treated with iron in the presence of water to produce
chloroform. It was a first for America in commercial production of a synthetic organic
chemical. And as Dow was to prove again and again, the venture opened new doors to
progress. Carbon tetrachloride, for example, developed into an important primary product.
Shortly before World War I, it began to find wide use as a fire extinguisher, cleaning
fluid and industrial solvent.
Down in Detroit, automobile manufacturers were installing pneumatic
tires on their cars. Flats were the hazard of the road, and a sponge rubber sausage to
replace the inner tube became much in demand. Sulfur chloride was a key chemical in the
sausage manufacture. Later, Dow was to help the motoring public in dozens of other
ways---calcium chloride to lay dust in summer and melt snow and ice in winter, plastic
fibers for interior fabrics, light and durable magnesium for structural and working parts
of the car, anti-knock and antifreeze compounds, latex for body paint, to name a few.
In 1909, Dow was following the research policy of today. He saw the
chemical laboratory as a place to create and develop products useful to society. One idea
Dow had was the making of synthetic rubber. It proved to be 30 years too soon, but it gave
Dow a background for a major contribution to World War II. Another idea was
"cracking" of petroleum to make hydrocarbons. Dow had lots of bromine and
chlorine on tap. If they could be combined with hydrocarbons, a vast new manufacturing
field could develop. And eventually it did.
Of more immediate value was Dows decision to install new
electrolytic cells, which would permit far more complete utilization of the Midland brine.
Besides chlorine and bromine, three other chemical workhorses were ready for harness: the
salts of sodium, magnesium and calcium. The new "works" gave Dow a vast source
of chlorine, and he thought he knew how to use it. "By this time, Herbert Dow could
see that carbon tetrachloride and chloroform and lead arsenate and other things using
chlorine were going to be a pretty good example," explained one of Dows
associates who was to become a Dow vice president. Lead arsenate, for instance, was the
forerunner of a long line of agricultural chemicals which have added countless tons to
American food production.
NEW METHODS BECOME MILITARY ASSET
And as World War I flared in Europe, both the new cells and Dows knowledge of
chemical synthesis became vital military assets. Germany had built up tremendous skills in
making dozens of organic chemicals. With the war, its exports stopped. Dyestuffs all but
vanished in America. Even aspirin was hard to come by. From Washington, the call went out
for chemical miracles--by the ton. In the chemical industry, people with ideas went to
work. In 18 months, Dow had synthetic indigo on the production line, using a tonnage
process that was to smash German invincibility in dye manufacture. Dow turned out 30
million pounds of caustic soda, although it was a newcomer to the caustic field. It turned
out an equal amount of chlorine. Both products are basics "building blocks" for
a variety of strategic materials. Dow scientists were asked by the Government to make
synthetic phenol, basic to the manufacture of such disruptive explosives as picric acid
and TNT. Their effort yielded 23,500,000 pounds.
Dow also made aspirin--as much as 125,000 pounds a month. It developed
and produced acetic anhydride, an organic solvent for waterproofing and strengthening
airplane fabrics. It produced huge quantities of carbon tetrachloride, chlorbenzol, Epsom
salts and other magnesium products, and of insecticides. Seventeen extra brine wells had
to be drilled and an extra power plant added for a branch of the Armys Edgewood
Arsenal, built and operated by Dow for the Chemical Warfare Service.
Obviously by now, it is apparent that Herbert Dow knew the way to
survive--expand research even more and modernize. And so from the laboratory emerged
better indigo, salicylates, aromatics and better ways to make them. New demand developed
for phenol in the infantileand growing--plastics industry. This time the company
decided to make phenol with a new process, using chlorobenzene. Not only did the process
work, it produced important byproducts which became the basis for fungicides and heat
Dow had many, many chemicals that went to war and helped to win it. The
list runs from aniline to xanthates, flotation agents in the mining of critical copper,
lead, and nickel ores. For some products, production increased 100 to 1,000%. Magnesium,
which had shown glimmerings of greatness in World War I, is a case in point. As early as
1896, Herbert Dow had set his sights on making magnesium hydrate. Twenty years were to
pass before his first limited success at making magnesium metal. On a hot day of July in
1916, a group of Dow scientists hovered anxiously over a box of welded boiler plate, lined
with slabs of soapstone. They were attempting to make metal from electrolysis of magnesium
chloride, a product of the Midland brine. The men stayed up all night, unconcernedly
sniffing chlorine and their loving care produced a one-pound cake of metallic magnesium.
In 1942, the critical year in the gaining of air supremacy over Europe,
Dow-operated plants produced 84% of the nations magnesium output.
Magnesium went to war in aircraft wheels, engines, and frames, in a
variety of ordnance equipment (bazooka barrels, for instance) in incendiary bombs, flares
and tracer powder, and in a variety of alloys with aluminum.
In other ways, too the chemical industry was revolutionizing science.
Uses of carbon tetrachloride ranged from making Freon for aerosol bombs to an industrial
solvent, uses of caustic soda from processing vegetable oils to making soap and
explosives. Phenolic compounds became starting materials in making of agricultural
chemicals, photographic chemicals, plastics, of germicides, fungicides and preservatives
that lengthened the life of tents, camouflage paints, pontoons, hawsers, paper. Dow
chemicals helped to dye the soldiers uniform, to tan his shoes, to make his shaving
cream, to shroud him in smoke screens, to keep his powder dry, his weapon lubricated, and
his drinking water pure. Saran monofilaments were woven into insect screening that defied
rust and rot in the tropics. A form of Styron was molded into the first successful radar
housing for aircraft, a development that was a key to smashing the "wolf pack"
menace in the Atlantic. A form of Ethocel became a part of the proximity shell that helped
win the Battle of the Bulge. There were Ethocel eye shields, map protectors, gun muzzle
covers. Stripcoat and saran film protected machine guns and precision parts and
instruments from corrosion.
As America became plastics-conscious, polystyrene compounds became a
growth leader of the plastics industry. For instance, Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene) had
been used with tarpaulin wrapping during the war to float equipment across bodies of
water. Now the plastic foam began to find wide use as an insulator in cold storage and
general construction and as a packaging, ornamental and decorative material. From wartime
saran film, Dow developed Saran Wrap, clinging transparent film widely used in industrial
and home packaging. Dows family of plastics and coatings appeared as wall tile,
synthetic latexes for paper and paints, television mask, dishes and kitchenware, pipes,
toys, flashlight cases, vacuum cleaner part-even doll hair. Today plastics account for
about one-third of all Dow sales.
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