Today In Science History – October 15 – Herbert Henry Dow


Henry Dow

Young Henry Dow in 1888.

October 15 marks the passing of Herbert Henry Dow. Dow was the Canadian industrialist who founded the Dow Chemical Company, the third largest chemical company in the world.

Dow began his first business extracting useful elements from underground brine. Brine is a solution of mostly salt but contains a wide variety of useful elemental components. These include sodium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, and bromine. Of these, bromine had the most potential for profit. Bromine in the late 1800s was used mostly in medicines called “bromides” and photographic chemicals. Pure sources of bromine were hard to come by since the German company Bromkonvention held a near monopoly on the bromine market. Dow hoped he could compete against the Germans at the local level.

Dow’s first process involved oxidizing the brine with a bleaching agent, such as calcium hydroxide or calcium hypochlorite. The oxidized brine was then allowed to drip onto burlap sacks while air was blown across the burlap. This would cause the water to evaporate. The calcium and sodium chlorides would form salt on the burlap and bromine would be carried away on the air current. The wet bromine air was passed over iron to form ferrous bromide (FeBr2). This method was relatively inexpensive, but not inexpensive enough to save Dow’s first company.

His second attempt involved oxidizing the brine by electrolysis. This technique proved to be the winning process. Once he got his bromine extraction equipment churning out bromine and making a profit, be wanted to use his electrolysis system to produce bleaching powders from the sodium hydroxide and chlorine from the brine. His financial backers didn’t want this expansion so Dow found other backers. After he found new backers, he reorganized the business into Dow Chemical Company.

Dow was producing large amounts of bromine from his plants. He produced more than enough to sell cheaply to American customers and decided to expand into the World markets. This is when he ran afoul of Bromkonvention. Bromkonvention was a group of bromine producers backed by the German government who controlled the world price on bromine. In Dow’s time, the price of German bromine was set at 49 cents per pound. Dow was selling internationally at 36 cents a pound. The Germans responded to this as they always had—lower the price below the competitor’s price to drive them out of business. They lowered the price in America to 15 cents per pound. At that price, no one in their right mind would pay Dow’s 36 cents.

Dow responded by quietly buying up all the 15 cent bromine and repackaging it as his own. He then sold it back to Germany at their export price of 27 cents per pound. The Germans saw the increased sales in the United States as a sign their strategy was working. Their strategy was working very well for Dow Chemical since the Germans were basically funding Dow’s business by buying back their own bromine. Once the Bromkonvention discovered what was happening, Dow Chemical was here to stay. Dow singlehandedly broke the German monopoly on bromine.

World War I would further limit the import of German goods to the United States. Germany was the source of much of the world’s chemicals. Since the British were actively blockading German exports, the supply was low. Dow was there to fill the gap. Dow Chemical would begin to produce many traditional German chemicals such as phenols, synthetic dyes, metallic magnesium and even aspirin.

Notable Science Events for October 15

2003 – China puts a man into space.

Yang Liwei

Yang Liwei – First taikonaut or Chinese astronaut.

China launched their first man into space and became the third country to send a man into space. Astronaut Yang Liwei blasted off from the Gobi desert launch facilities aboard the Shenzhou V spacecraft.

He orbited the Earth 14 times and returned safely 22 hours after launch.

2000 – Konrad Bloch died.

Bloch was a German-American biochemist who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Feodor Lynen for their discoveries concerning the biosynthesis of fatty acids and cholesterol. Bloch discovered that acetic acid was a major contributor to the natural formation of cholesterol. Both men discovered how the body creates and regulates fatty acids and cholesterol.

1997 – NASA, ESA, and ASI launch the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn

View of Earth From Saturn

One of the famous images from the Cassini spacecraft. This view of Earth through Saturn’s rings. Earth is the bright blue dot in the wide gap between the outer two rings. Credit: NASA/ESA/ASI

NASAESA, and ASI launched the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to orbit Saturn. Seven years later, it arrived at Saturn to deploy the Huygens probe on Titan and begin observations of Saturn. It has proven one of the most successful missions to other planets to date. It has sent back a treasure trove of new information and images until 2017 when Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere.

1940 – Peter Charles Doherty was born.

Doherty is an Australian veterinarian surgeon who shares the 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Rolf Zinkernagel for their discoveries in cell-based immune defense. They discovered how T cells recognize infected cells. They found T-cells seek out two molecules on the surface of an infected cell, the virus infecting the cell and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins. If the T cell discovers these molecules, it kills the cell so the infection cannot reproduce.

1930 – Herbert Henry Dow died.

1915 – Theodor Heinrich Boveri died.

Theodor Boveri

Theodor Boveri (1862 – 1915)

Boveri was a German cytologist who showed chromosomes are separate, continuous entities within the nucleus of a cell and one chromosome is responsible for certain hereditary traits and the importance of cytoplasm. He also theorized, with Edouard van Beneden, that the egg and sperm cells contribute an equal number of chromosomes to the new cell created during fertilization. Boveri introduced the term centrosome to describe the division center for a cell during cell division.

1910 – Torbjörn Oskar Caspersson was born.

Caspersson was a Danish cytologist who was the first to use an ultraviolet microscope to identify nucleic acid content in cells. He also discovered the quinacrine mustard stain that caused chromosomes to show light and dark bands along their length to quickly identify all 22 autosomes and XY chromosomes.

1858 – Carl Gustaf Mosander died.

Carl Gustaf Mosander (1797 - 1858)

Carl Gustaf Mosander (1797 – 1858)

Mosander was a Swedish chemist who discovered the first lanthanides. He was investigating rare earth minerals and discovered the elements lanthanum, terbium, and erbium. He also believed he discovered another element he named didymium.

Didymium was later determined to not be an element but a mixture of the elements praseodymium and neodymium.

1829 – Asaph Hall III was born.

Asaph Hall III

Asaph Hall III (1829 – 1907)

Hall was an American astronomer who discovered the two moons of Mars, Phobos, and Deimos. He worked for the US Naval Observatory where he was responsible for operating the world’s largest refracting telescope of the time.

During his tenure, he determined the orbits of several planet’s satellites and the rotation rate of Saturn.

1608 – Evangelista Torricelli was born.

Evangelista Torricelli

Portrait of Evangelista Torricelli by Lorenzo Lippi circa 1647. Inventor of the barometer.

Torricelli was an Italian physicist who invented the mercury barometer. He was working on a method to use mercury as a pump and filled a tube with mercury and sealed one end. The other end was submerged into a basin of mercury. The mercury level in the tube dropped down and created a vacuum in the sealed end. He later discovered the level would change as atmospheric pressure changed. The non-SI pressure unit Torr was named in his honor.

1564 – Andreas Vesalius died.

Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius – Woodcut portrait from his De humani corporis fabrica.

Vesalius was a Flemish physician and anatomist who is considered the father of the study of human anatomy. His book, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body) was the standard anatomy reference text for generations. The book was comprised of detailed woodcut plates of the human body in various stages of dissection and poses to illustrate relative positions of organs and structures.

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