✪ Herbert Henry Dow was a Canadian born, American chemical industrialist and early electrochemical pioneer who founded the American multinational conglomerate Dow Chemical Company. The son of a master mechanic who earned his living by making improvements in small factories in Connecticut and Ohio, Dow possessed not only his father’s inventive genius but even better business acumen. A graduate of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio, Dow was a prolific inventor of chemical processes, compounds and products; notably bromine extraction from sea water.
Dow was also a public-spirited citizen and philanthropist; serving on numerous boards of public works and education for many years. His favorite saying was,“If we can’t do it better than the others, why do it?”
Herbert Henry Dow was born in 1866 in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. The eldest child of Americans Joseph Henry Dow, an inventor and mechanical engineer; and his wife, Sarah Bunnell, who were from Derby, Connecticut. When the infant Herbert was only six weeks old, the family returned to their hometown. They moved again in 1878, this time to Cleveland to follow Joseph’s job with the Derby Shovel Manufacturing Company.
Before Herbert was a pioneer in electrochemistry, he showed a passion for science and a mind for business from an early age. Born in Ontario in 1866, Herbert spent his childhood first in Connecticut and later in Ohio. His close relationship with his father likely influenced his eventual business successes. Joseph Henry Dow was a natural tinkerer, inventor and mechanical engineer. During his childhood, Herbert and his father constantly worked together to solve problems, which would become the topic of conversations at the dinner table. His father often would bring home mechanical problems from his job, providing hands-on experience to accompany Herbert’s formal education. One of their inventions, a small steam turbine, was used by the U.S. Navy for years to power torpedoes.
Herbert’s first solo invention was an incubator for chicken eggs when he was 12. The idea came from a magazine article describing the problem of raising ostriches in South Africa. He found the main problem in incubating eggs was maintaining a constant temperature. Not willing to turn down a challenge, Herbert tried 39 times to develop a simple automated thermostat device. He succeeded on the 40th try. When he discovered selling incubators likely wouldn’t be a lucrative undertaking, he decided the most economical business model would be to market the incubator plans to prospective customers.
After graduating from high school in 1884, Dow enrolled in the Case School of Applied Science (now known as Case Western Reserve University). While at Case, he became a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. It was here he began specialized research into the chemical composition of brines in Ohio and nearby areas. He discovered that brine samples from Canton, Ohio and Midland, Michigan were very rich in bromine. Following his graduation from Case in 1888, Dow worked for a year as a chemistry professor at Huron Street Hospital College in Cleveland, while continuing his research into the extraction of chemicals from brine.
Herbert abandoned his first senior thesis, “A New Method for Mining Native Copper,” halfway through his last year of college after he became dissatisfied with how his research was progressing. Instead he began to study boiler fuels and their chemical composition. For a college project, he tested gas wells in Ohio and Midland, Michigan. One day, a worker gave him a sample of the bitter brine he had found while drilling. The encounter left an impression on Herbert, who seemed to grasp that a sea of chemical raw materials flowed not far below the Earth’s surface.
In the 19th Century, bromide was used primarily in medicines and photographic chemicals. It could only be produced through a costly and time consuming process of extracting it from brine water obtained from either seawater or deep water wells. In 1889, Dow received his first patent after inventing a more cost-effective and streamlined process for bromine extraction. He quickly formed his first company, the Canton Chemical Company, but it went bankrupt within a year. However, his associates were impressed with his work and in 1890 helped him to found the Midland Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan. Dow continued his research work into the extraction of bromine and by early 1891 he had invented the Dow process, a method of bromine extraction using electrolysis to oxidize bromide to bromine.
Dow’s second company, the Midland Chemical Company, opened in 1890. There he oxidized the brine by electrolysis, a method he also wanted to use to make sodium hydroxide and chlorine to be turned into bleach powder. Dow wanted to expand his research of electrolysis to yield other chemicals. His financial backers did not approve of his continued research and fired him from the Midland Chemical Company. He continued his research, developing a process to extract chlorine and caustic soda from sodium chloride.
In 1895, Dow moved his young family to Massillon, Ohio and founded the Dow Process Company to develop the production mechanism for his chemical processed.
His financial backers balked at his ideas for diversification and removed him from control. Realizing he would need a new company to move forward with the manufacture of chlorine, Herbert secured new investments and founded a third company in 1897, The Dow Chemical Company. The Dow Chemical Company was incorporated with 57 original stockholders. Within three years, his new company purchased and acquired the Midland Chemical Company.
With his new company and new technology, Dow was able to produce bromine very cheaply and began selling it in the United States for 36 cents per pound. At the time, the international bromine market was controlled by a German government supported bromine cartel, Deutsche Bromkonvention, which had a near-monopoly on the supply of bromine, which they sold in the US for 49 cents per pound. The Germans had made it clear to Dow that they would flood the US market with cheap bromine if Dow attempted to sell his product abroad. In 1904 Dow defied the cartel and began to export his bromine to England at the cheaper price. A few months later, an angry Bromkonvention representative visited Dow in his office and personally threatened him to cease exporting his bromine.
Unafraid, Dow continued exporting to England and Japan. The German cartel retaliated by dumping and flooding the US market with bromine at 15 cents a pound in an effort to put him out of business. Unable to compete with this predatory pricing in the U.S., Dow instructed his agents to buy up hundreds of thousands of pounds of the German bromine locally at the low price. Dow’s company then repackaged the bromine and exported it to Europe, selling it at a profit to even German companies at 27 cents a pound. The cartel, having expected Dow to go out of business, was unable to understand what was driving the enormous demand for bromine in the United States and where all the cheap imported bromine dumping in their market was coming from. They suspected their own members of violating their price-fixing agreement and selling in Germany below the cartel’s fixed cost. The cartel continued to slash their export prices on their bromine in the U.S., first to 12 cents a pound, and then to 10.5 cents per pound. The cartel finally caught on to Dow’s tactic and realized that they could not keep selling below cost. They then increased their prices worldwide.
During Dow’s tenure, the Company transitioned from inorganic chemistry to producing organic chemicals, including phenol and indigo dye, and eventually to magnesium metal.
Dow Chemical Company focused heavily on research and was soon able to extract many more chemicals from brine. The demand during World War I for industrial chemicals provided an era of rapid growth and expansion for Dow Chemical. This was due primarily to Britain blockading German ports, which at the time included most of the world’s largest chemical suppliers. Dow Chemical moved quickly to fill the demand gap for wartime goods by producing magnesium for incendiary flares, monochlorobenzene and phenol for explosives and bromine for medicines and tear gas. By 1918, 90% of the Dow Chemical Company production was in support of the war effort. During this time period, Dow also created the diamond logo, which is still used today by the Dow Chemical Company.
Following the conclusion of the war, Dow began to research the benefits of magnesium, which the company had in large supply. He discovered that it could be used to make automobile pistons. The new pistons proved to give more speed and better fuel efficiency. The Dowmetal pistons were also used heavily in racing vehicles; and the 1921, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 used the Dowmetal pistons in his vehicle.
Dow married the former Grace Anna Ball, a teacher in Midland, on November 16, 1892. Their marriage bore seven children between 1894 and 1908: Helen, Ruth, Willard, Osborn, Alden B, Margaret and Dorothy D. One child, Osborn Curtis, died from Spinal meningitis before his third birthday in 1902. Willard became a chemist with his father’s company. Alden studied engineering in preparation for work at Dow Chemical, but later shifted to architecture.
Dow died on October 15, 1930 from cirrhosis of the liver. By the time of his death, Dow had personally received over 90 patents.
Dow was buried at the Midland City Cemetery in Midland, Michigan. He is currently interred there on the Dow Family plot with Grace and his seven children.
After his death, Grace established the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Foundation in memory of her husband in 1936 to enhance the quality of life for everyone in the Midland area and the state of Michigan. In the almost 90 years since, nearly half a billion dollars has been contributed by the foundation to worthy projects, causes and programs. The foundation’s offices are still located in a building on the grounds of the Dow home and gardens ✪