July 19 – Anniversary of a Collaboration Between Giants

Posted on July 19, 2014

History can be a jumble in my
head. With an awful lot about
various battles and wars!
I learned much of history in little cubicles. U.S. History here, World History there. History of transportation and communication inventions over here, history of battles and wars over there.

To some extent, the disjointed facts I have crammed into my head have no way of informing me about who-knew-who, who-influenced-who, who-taught-who.

One thing I had never heard of before was that two giants in slightly different fields worked together on an experiment. The two giants were agricultural inventor and botanist George Washington Carver, and automobile manufacturer and industrial innovator Henry Ford.

It almost makes sense that two great American inventors and innovators, living at the same time, might meet one another—but it had never occurred to me that they would.

Carver was born a slave during the Civil War, he worked as a farm hand and managed to get a college education after moving out of the South, to Iowa. But he moved back to the South in order to head the department of agriculture at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Ford of course set up his Motor Company near Detroit, Michigan.

The two wrote letters back and forth, and in 1937 Carver visited Michigan. Ford donated money to support Carver's work at the Tuskegee Institute, and Carver helped oversee crops at the Ford plantation in Georgia. By the beginning of World War II, Ford had made several trips to Alabama to try to convince Carver to come help him develop a synthetic rubber because the war had caused shortages. Carver finally arrived in Dearborn, MI, on this date in 1942, and set up a laboratory.

Carver and Ford experimented with crops such as sweet potatoes and dandelions. Finally they devised a way to make rubber using goldenrod.

I couldn't find out how long the two worked together, but I did hear that when Carver returned home to Tuskegee, Ford paid to have an elevator installed in dormitory where Carver lived, so that he wouldn't have to climb up and down stairs. Carver was 79 years old at that time, and he died just six months after working with Ford.

By the way, although Ford died just four years after Carver, the relationship between Ford Motor Company and the Tuskegee Institute continued. I found out, for example, that a library at the university is named the Ford Motor Company Library / Learning Resource Center, because the company had donated $4.5 million for the renovation of the old library, with the completion of the renovations in 2001.

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