Henry Ford and His Employees: Work with Soy
A Special Exhibit - The History of Soy Pioneers Around the World - Unpublished Manuscript
by William Shurtleff and Akiko
Henry Ford, born 30 July 1863 on a farm near
Dearborn, Michigan, was one of America's foremost soybean and soyfood
pioneers. From the late 1920s until many years after his death in 1947,
Ford's name was closely linked with soybeans, for he developed a host of
new ways to use the crop industrially and was one of the most creative of
the original soyfoods pioneers. In those days when soyfoods were not yet
respectable (are they yet?), Ford had to take a lot of abuse and become
the butt of many jokes and newspaper cartoons for his firm belief in the
soybean. A man of great vision and influence, Ford and his huge publicity
machine, plus his unique ability to attract media attention, gave soybeans
and soyfoods extensive and exciting nationwide publicity. He reached both
farmers and the general public in an area when soy was still largely
Early Research with Soybean Oil and Meal. Ford was deeply interested in finding ways of relating new technology to agriculture as part of his lifelong efforts to improve the lot of farmers, who were among his best customers for both Ford cars and Fordson tractors. This is where his extensive research with soybeans began. In 1928 Ford became interested in a new agricultural concept, farm chemurgy, which applies chemistry and allied sciences to transform farm crops into new industrial products. Ford believed "that industry and agriculture are natural partners," that industry would increasingly turn to the soil for many of its raw materials, and that eventually many components of finished cars and tractors could come from farms. He declared in about 1933-34, "If we want the farmer to be our customer, we must find a way to be his customer" (Ref??). In 1935 Ford played host to 300 leading agriculturists, scientists, and industrialists, who met in Dearborn to organize the National Farm Chemurgic Council, which set in motion the whole chemurgic movement.
In 1929, when the Great Depression hit America--and especially American farmers--Ford set out to develop new ways to help farmers out of the hard times. In that year, he built a large laboratory in Greenfield Village, which was part of the Edison Institute of Technology in Dearborn, Michigan. Thomas Edison (then over 80 years old and Ford's greatest hero, after whom the Institute had been named) was a frequent visitor and consultant. At the laboratory Ford and his researchers began experiments to find a farm crop that could be grown in Michigan and that showed promise for use in industry and as a food. In December 1931, after extensive tests on virtually every farm crop known, the soybean was chosen as the most hopeful contender, since it was rich in both oil and protein, had a residual fiber amenable to many uses, was low in water, and stored well. One day at about this time, according to Bob Smith, one-time manager of the Ford farms, Mr. Ford wandered into the laboratory and picked up a copy of The Soybean by C.V. Piper and W.J. Morse (1923); he sat down and read it from cover to cover. When he finished he encouraged his researchers to go ahead at full speed, concentrating their efforts on soy. In keeping with his policy of producing raw materials as near as possible to the point of processing, Ford was soon encouraging farmers in southern Michigan to plant plenty of soybean, with the assurance that the Ford Motor Company would do everything possible to provide a market for them.
Ford's two top soybean researchers during this testing period had been Robert Allen Boyer, head of the laboratory studying industrial applications, and Dr. Edsel Ruddiman, doing soyfoods research. Boyer, born on 30 September 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, had moved to South Sudbury, Massachusetts when his father had been hired by Ford to run the nation's oldest hotel there, the Wayside Inn. Ford, who had a real eye for promising young talent, had "discovered" Boyer at the Inn in 1925 during one of Ford's frequent visits there. Attracted by the boy's keen, active mind, Ford had suggested to Boyer that, instead of following his plans to enter Andover prep school and then Dartmouth College, he enroll in the new Henry Ford Trade School and participate in its unique work-study program at the adjacent huge River Rouge auto factory. Boyer accepted the idea and after attending the trade school from 1927-1929 he graduated at age 21, a promising research chemist; he took his first job as head of the new soybean lab at the Edison Institute. Ford liked to call the Edison Institute (which was both a school and a research center) the "School for Inventors." He once said he would like to put a sign over the front door which would read "Place for Damn Fool Experiments," although he never did.
Dr. Edsel Ruddiman, a close boyhood pal of Ford's, formerly dean of the School of Pharmacy at Vanderbilt University, and an excellent scientist, had started his soyfoods research with Ford in about 1927, and now had a lab near to Boyer's. Ruddiman was the man who got Ford interested in soyfoods; in gratitude, Ford gave Ruddiman's first name, Edsel, to his first son. Ford soon became deeply interested in the fact that soyfoods had been used for thousands of years as a key source of high-quality, low-cost protein by millions of people in East Asia.
Ford's researchers were pioneers in developing processes and equipment for the solvent extraction of soy oil. In the late 1920s the first solvent systems had come to be used in the US after having been developed in Germany. Extraction using gasoline solvents existed on a commercial scale in Germany but was not yet in use in the US, so Boyer and his staff had to develop the equipment. In about 1932 they built a small solvent extractor to separate the bean into soy oil and protein-rich meal. The oil eventually became the most important commercial soy product on Ford cars. Previously the cars had been finished with five to eight coats of lacquer, each of which had to be sanded and smoothed by hand. Starting in 1934, this was replaced with a synthetic baked enamel paint, which contained roughly 35% soy oil, and saved considerable time and money. In 1935 more than 1,000,000 gallons of soy oil were used in enamel paints for Ford cars. Another 540,000 gallons were made into glycerine and used in shock absorbers, and 200,000 gallons were used in the foundry as a sand binder in the manufacture of cores. It took 78,000 acres of soybeans to yield all this oil; 12,000 of these acres were grown by Ford.
The protein-rich defatted meal also began to show exciting new possibilities. As early as 1915 Dodd was granted a US patent for making plastic materials from soybean meal, and in 1917 and 1918 Satow (a Japanese) was granted a whole series of patents for soybean plastics. Ford's researchers found that when their defatted soybean meal was mixed, in a new process, with phenol and formaldehyde, it reacted to form a thermoplastic resin, which could be molded under pressure to make nonstructural plastic parts for Ford's cars: plastic horn buttons, gearshift knobs, coil cases, distributor heads, accelerator foot pedals, glove compartment doors, and tractor seats. Even steering wheels were attempted, but they were not as food as the hard rubber type. The new parts molded very solidly, and could be finished like animal horn to take a high polish. Many pleasing colors and effects were obtained. Like ancient alchemists, Ford and Boyer were transforming soybeans into tractor parts, which were then used to help farm the soybeans used to grow more tractor and auto parts . . . an elegant, decentralized renewable cycle. Each new molded plastic part added to the car required 7,200 more acres of soybean per year. During 1932 and 1933 Ford spent more than $1,250,000 on his new soybean projects. In December 1933 Fortune magazine reported that Ford was now "as much interested in the soya bean as he is in the V-8." By 1935 a bushel (60 pounds) of soybeans went into the paint and molded plastic parts of every Ford car.
The development of the soy protein plastic was followed by the construction of a building 400 feet long in the River Rouge plant, where commercial production could take place. Space for 400 molding machines was provided, as well as for equipment to produce 80,000 pounds of the molding material each day. The new unit, which cost $4 million, was Ford's answer to the questions of the permanence of the new products. By 1936 some of the trim on the new Ford V-8 was made of soybean plastic, causing one humorist to remark that "Ford had discovered soybeans were his 'bumper crop'" (Ref??).
Ford was now more interested than ever in finding new ways of bringing agriculture and industry closer together. As Ford saw the world of the future, every farmer would become prosperous by running his own little "cottage industry" (as Ford called it), that took the soybeans the farmer grew in his fields and transformed them into one or more raw materials for sale to industry or foods for sale to grocery stores. In this decentralized society there would be no need for animals; the barns would house the cottage industries and serve to store grain. Prior to 1934 Ford had developed a small solvent crushing mill that could be installed in an ordinary (or abandoned) farm barn. The machinery was simple and could be easily installed at low cost; much of it was standard piping. Only the crushing rolls and a few pipe fittings had to be purchased. It used about 100 gallons of high-grade gasoline or naptha solvent and required a total investment of $1,500-$2,000 (Sweinhart 1934; Markley and Goss 1944).
Soy made nationwide headlines at the "Century of Progress" World's Fair held in Chicago all summer in 1934. Ford bought in an entire barn from his childhood home (it had been built by his father in 1863), planted a plot of soybeans around it, put a sign "The Industrialized American Barn" over the barn door, and set up inside it in an elaborate soy display featuring one of his small farm-scale solvent extraction plants and a soyfoods kitchen. Over a million people viewed low-technology soy oil production and the molding of soy protein into plastic parts. The soy oil, produced on the spot, was used to fuel a diesel engine, which ran a generator that produced all the electricity for the display! An especially tasty variety of large-seeded vegetable-type soybeans was deep-fried and served like salted peanuts to visitors, providing most with their first taste of soybeans. Similar exhibits were shown at various state, regional, and world fairs during the 1930s. (The cottage industry solvent plant concept, although interesting, was not economically viable so it never got off the ground.)
Ford, Ruddiman, and Soyfoods. Ford's interest in soyfoods began in the early 1930s and stemmed from the interest and work of Dr. Ruddiman. The two men's earliest soyfoods extravaganza was the press luncheons and dinners that they developed to publicize the experimentation with soy. The first was served (to 30 wary reporters) at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934; two others were served prior to 1943. Every course consisted partially or wholly of soy (Dahlinger 1978). Ruddiman's meatless menu, accompanied by a recipe for each dish served, read:
Apparently not all guests shared Ford's enthusiasm for the feast. As one wrote years later with wry humor, "Nothing we newsmen ate that day led us to foresee that soybeans were destined to become an ingredient in many popular food products . . . We accepted as reasonable the possibility that the bean might become a leading cattle feed or industrial material." An article in the Christian Science Monitor (18 August 1934) titled "Chicago Finds that Soybeans Made into Savory Dishes Rival the Boston Beans," noted in a similar vein, "Please pass the soybean salad." "Oh! won't you please have some soybean soup?" "This soybean cake is delicious, but after the soybean croquettes, soybean apple pie and soybean coffee, you know one isn't really hungry." Dr. Ruddiman also developed a soybean biscuit, which both Ford and white rats apparently liked, yet one of Ford's secretaries described it with unabashed candor as "the vilest thing ever put into human mouths" (Lewis 1972).
Out of their work in developing soyfoods banquets during the mid-1930s, Ford and Dr. Ruddiman developed a 19-page soup-to-nuts booklet titled "Recipes for Soy Bean Foods." One of the first of its kind in America, it was published by the Edison Institute and contained 58 soyfoods recipes including ones for breads, biscuits, cakes, cookies, salads, meat substitutes, soymilk, tofu, and soy butter. Unfortunately this book was not widely distributed. Dishes containing 25-30% soy flour were often served at Ford's daily roundtable luncheons at the Dearborn Engineering Laboratory, and recipes for these and other soyfoods recipes (including tofu recipes) were published from time to time in the Ford News, to introduce workers to soyfoods.
During the mid-1930s Ford became deeply interested in soymilk. When he informed his first reporter that he was developing a "synthetic milk," he was greeted with a howl of laughter and disbelief. As part of his ongoing research on soyfoods and industrial soy products he built a demonstration soymilk plant in Greenfield Village and it produced several hundred gallons of soymilk daily. It was most popular among Ford's Filipino employees; the addition of a little banana oil was said to improve the flavor. After World War II started, the soymilk process was taken over by one of the soy dairy workers, Bob Smith. He built a private soy dairy in Dearborn and sold his soymilk for use in local baked goods, frostings, and the like, and to a big bakery in Detroit. The operation was so successful that, soon after it started, a very large and well-known food company in Buffalo, Rich Products, started the same process. One of Bob Smith's workers went there and made soymilk, coffee creamers, and the like. In 1940 Ruddiman presented a paper on "Possibilities of Soybean Milk" at the annual meeting of the American Soybean Association.
Ford loved soymilk. He was constantly inviting his friends and research assistants to sample it. He kept soymilk in his refrigerator and gave his recipe away to friends. He liked it best sweetened with a little maple syrup, sorghum syrup, or honey. He loved to show his friends letters he had received from doctors who were grateful for his experiments on developing soymilk for babies who were allergic to cow's milk. Ford also used his soymilk to make tofu (Simonds 1938).
Ford's interest in soyfoods can apparently be traced back to 1923 for by that year, according to his biographers Nevins and Hill (1957) the Ford company stores sold soy flour breads and canned fresh green soybeans. No indication is given as to the source of these early soy products. Ford's interest in soyfoods reached its peak during the mid-1930s. Dahlinger (1978) reports that Ford would talk about soyfoods with almost everyone he met. When he went to others' homes, the cooks would be instructed to sneak some soybeans into as many dishes as possible--the soup, salad, peas, or vegetable dishes. In their homes, both Ford and Boyer liked to eat roasted soynuts, natural breads made with soy flour, soybean pies and soups, tofu, and tofu cottage cheese (sometimes made with the acid-precipitated curds from the soy protein isolate process to which salt and other seasonings were added).
During the 1930s, anyone visiting Greenfield Village came away with a knowledge of soy flour, soy grits, and other soyfoods. Soy flour was used in many foods sold to visitors at the Village: breads, rolls, muffins, biscuits, cakes, and cookies. Also popular with visitors were the salted soynuts, made by soaking whole soybeans in water, deep-frying them, salting lightly, then packaging like salted peanuts. Another favorite was soybean candies coated with a mixture of soy lecithin and chocolate. Dr. Ruddiman also developed canned fresh green soybeans (Bansei variety) and produced 590 cans in 1935 and 1,000 in 1936 (Simonds 1938).
Ford's interest in soyfoods is best understood when viewed against his lifelong and unusually strong interest in diet and health. Full of energy, lean as a split rail fence, well tanned, and in good physical condition, he was the picture of health. Ford (and Boyer) did not smoke or drink and he waged many a public crusade against these evils. He banned smoking in his plants and discouraged drinking; workers at his plants were actually fired if they were caught doing either. In the early 1900s he became a member of the Committee of Fifty to Study the Tobacco Problem (which included J.H. Kellogg, another soyfoods pioneer) and helped produce one of the first educational motion pictures warning of the dangers of tobacco smoking. He loved American folk dancing. At one period in his life, he regularly jogged three miles in the morning and ate his first meal at one o'clock in the afternoon. He challenged scores of people, particularly reporters, to foot races, and only the most fleet footed could stay with him over 100 yards. He was still racing when he was 80 years old (Nevins and Hill 1963, p. 229). At times he supported vegetarianism. As early as 1919-1920 he said that the world would be better off without meat. In 1922 he claimed that "chicken is fit only for hawks." He disliked quadrapeds, finding them unnecessary and inefficient. He called the cow the crudest machine in the world. He said, "We don't need cows. We can make milk and meat substitutes out of soybeans." Yet for most of his life Ford enjoyed meat (especially steaks) as much as most Americans. Ford preached that sugar was dangerous for the body. His wife suffered from arthritis and he sought diets to help her. His well-publicized dietary fancies, too, varied almost from year to year. Yet Ford believed that whole, natural foods were of the greatest benefit to health. Frederick Stare, of the Harvard University Department of Nutrition, has even classed Ford (along with Sylvester Graham, Horace Fletcher, John D. Rockefeller, and George Bernard Shaw) as one of America's original "food faddists" (Ref??; Deutsch 1961 and 1967, "Nuts Among the Berries).
Development of the Plastic Car. In 1935 the first commercial plant for manufacturing industrial-grade soy protein isolates was built by the Glidden Company in Chicago, Illinois. Most of this soy isolate was used by the paper-making industry for the coating and sizing of paper. Casein technology provided the most advanced knowledge of protein isolate utilization in those days and served as a guideline in soy protein development. The first high-quality soy protein isolates designed for food use were produced by Central Soya in Oct. 1959 and then Ralston Purina in about 1963 (1960??). These would later be used in making meat analogs and other food ingredients.
From 1937-1939 Ford built three relatively small commercial soybean oil solvent extraction plants in Michigan, at the Rouge plant and at Saline and Milan. These were used for producing soy oil and meal as well as for research and demonstration. They used 6-24 tons of raw soybeans a day. By 1937 Ford was producing 300,000 gallons of soy oil a year for use in car enamels (Soybean Digest 1947). Since this left him more meal than he could use, he was selling the meal; he ran ads for it in the early 1940s in the Soybean Digest. One advantage of the new solvent system was that the mild heating required caused little denaturation of the soy protein, which was important in making soy isolates and later, spun soy fibers.
To supply his plants, Ford was also growing his own soybeans. In 1932 and 1933 the Ford Farms (with help from Floyd Radford) planted 300 varieties of soybeans on some 8,000 acres of farms he had bought in southern Michigan. (Also in 1932 Ford acquired a 2,000-acre estate in Boreham, Essex, England; the first successful crops of soybeans in England were grown there by J.L. North in 1933-34.) By 1935 Ford had 12,000 acres of soybeans in Michigan and by 1936 he had 60,000 acres. By 1939 the Ford Motor Company was harvesting about 100,000 bushels of its own soybeans; it had to buy an additional 500,000 bushels plus large amounts of soy oil. Ford eventually helped raise Michigan's soybean production to 3,000,000 bushels a year. A soybean named "Ford" was introduced in its namesake's honor in 1958, eleven years after Ford's death.
In 1936 Ford hosted meetings of the Farm Chemurgic Council in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan; 1,000 people attended, as against 400 the previous year. One entire section of the program was devoted to the soybean, which stole the show. Six papers were presented and speakers included Mr. E.D. Funk, Sr. and Clark Bradley. On 12 October 1936 Time magazine stated: "The No. 1 U.S. soybean man is Henry Ford."
During the 1930s and 1950s, Ford and his researchers worked closely with the American Soybean Association. In 1940 Ford hosted the annual ASA convention at Dearborn; it turned out to be a turning point in ASA history. Attendees toured the Ford soybean fields, saw solvent extraction plants, and heard the story of the planned use of plastic bodies for automobiles. Ruddiman presented a paper on soymilk.
American soybeans attained their most sensational media publicity to date in late 1941 in connection with Ford's "soybean plastic car." As early as 1934 Ford had first remarked that "Someday you and I will see the day when auto bodies will be grown down on the farm." He intended to "grow cars rather than mine them." By late 1937 work had started on the project and Boyer had developed a curved, structured plastic sheet which Ford hoped would replace steel in auto bodies. A few weeks later the magnate called in reporters, jumped up and down on the unbending sheet, and triumphantly exclaimed, "If that was steel it would have caved in." He added, "almost all new cars will soon be made of such things as soybeans" (Nevins and Hill 1963, p. 283). In 1940 Boyer installed a plastic trunk lid on one of Ford's personal cars. In November 1940, Ford, always the genius at obtaining free publicity, again called in the press. He startled reporters by gleefully taking an ax (actually he used the square back end, covered with a leather guard) and with all of his lanky 77-year-old might, whalloping the trunk lid to prove that, unlike steel, the new plastic would not dent, shatter, or crack. He then invited them to try an ax on their own cars! Finally he predicted that his company would be mass-producing plastic bodied autos within 1-3 years. "I wouldn't be surprised," he declared, "if our (soybean research) laboratory comes to be the most important building of our entire plant." A picture of Ford's ax swinging stunt and accompanying wire service stories appeared in most of the nation's newspapers. Time magazine (11 Nov. 1940) ran a full page story entitled "Plastic Fords," and Life and Fortune magazines each carried a large photo. Time described how, unlike most commercial plastics, Boyer's sheets looked like polished steel. Consisting of 70% cellulose and 30% resin binder pressed into cloth, the new rust-free, dent-proof plastic was reportedly 50% lighter and 50% cheaper (to fabricate??) than steel; it could absorb, without denting, a blow ten times as great as steel could stand. When bent like a jackknife, the plastic panels snap back into place when released. The color, being inbred in the plastic, eliminates painting and provides a finish as enduring as the panel itself. Fenders, when released, would rebound from minor collisions like rubber balls. Ford went on to say that if each of the one million cars he produced each year were outfitted with his usual plastic molded parts and enamel paint, this would consume 700,000 bushels of soybeans; this was, however, less than 1% of the entire US crop that year.
Soon plastic trunk lids were installed on many of the Ford company cars. In November 1940 Ford gave Boyer the authority to order a complete set of very expensive dies to make an entire plastic auto body. Shortly thereafter Boyer stated publicly his belief that the plastic car would be able to compete economically with steel for, although the raw material cost was higher (above said it was 50% cheaper??), it was less expensive to fabricate and finish it, and it saved gas by making the car some 30% lighter than a steel car.
Carrying his dream a step further, on 13 August 1941, at the climax of Dearborn's annual community festival, Ford dramatically unveiled a handmade car with a complete plastic body. He also invited the press to his 14-course soyfoods luncheon. The timing was perfect. Americans were just starting to become aware of plastics and of the fact that a steel shortage threatened to cripple the auto industry's nondefense production. The plastic car was made by attaching 14 molded plastic panels, each 3/8 inch thick, to a welded tubular steel frame; it weighed 700 to 1,000 pounds (23-33% less than its steel-bodied counterpart). Again the car (and soybeans) got tremendous nationwide publicity and stirred the imagination of editorial writers as had few Ford-related events for some years. Many newspapers regarded the experimental vehicle as revolutionary. The New York Times thought it "may have a great influence on the automobile industry." Other media suggested that he use the new plastic for dent-proof battleship armor or for rust-proof coffins.
The plastic-bodied car quickly generated its share of jokes. People said that if the auto didn't run, Ford could eat it. Or he could have his car and eat it too. Farmers began to ask each other what they were growing this year, Fords or Chryslers. The Cleveland Press wondered why Ford didn't strengthen his plastic by adding spinach. In 1943 several of these jokes were dusted off when a goat actually ate an Illinois license plate made of soybean-derived fiberboard.
What was lost (or perhaps deliberately omitted) in all the great publicity for soybeans was that, whereas soy protein had been a fairly important component in the early structural plastic panels, it ended up being only a very minor element, largely because no way was found to make it completely waterproof (Ford Home Almanac 1941). The real importance was that a renewable resource was now being used to make car bodies. Nevertheless the notion of a "soybean car" struck the popular fancy and hung on.
The outbreak of World War II and the suspension of automobile production forced Ford to abandon his efforts to mass-produce plastic car bodies. Until 1943, however, he maintained that he would build them as soon as the war was over, even though engineers had run into problems; the plastic ended up costing much more than steel because the panels took a long time to cure in their molds. Ford died in 1946 and, according to the Ford Motor Company, the idea just seems to have gotten lost in the files (Atlanta Journal and Constitution 1973). But others were soon to follow Ford's lead; in 1953 General Motors introduced the first car with a plastic body, the highly successful Chevrolet Corvette. Studebaker's plastic Avanti appeared in 1962. The Ford Company was using an average of 29 pounds of plastic in its cars by 1962, 50 pounds by 1968, 120 pounds by 1972, and 200 pounds by 1980. But whereas Ford wanted his plastic cars made from renewable crop resources, the new plastics are merely chemicals/synthetics.
Boyer's Soybean Wool and Edible Protein Fibers. Of the many soybean projects initiated by Ford and Boyer, the one that has probably had the greatest impact on soyfoods in America today started with the development of a synthetic wool from soy protein. The world's first synthetic protein fiber was developed and introduced in Italy in 1936. Called Lanital, it was made from casein (milk protein). Still all known protein fibers (wool, silk, casein) were of animal origin. Rayon, the basis of a burgeoning new industry at the time, was made of cellulose . . . as, of course, was cotton. In 1928 Cone and Brown had taken out a patent in the state of Washington for producing soy protein isolates from soy meal by extracting the protein with alkali and sodium sulfite, then precipitating it with an acid to make an isolate for use in plywood glues. This patent started an entire industry. By early 1933?? Boyer had set up a pilot plant at the Edison Institute for producing soy protein isolates on a small scale using the meal from the Ford solvent plant and a new process, not under license. Some tests were done using these isolates in molded plastic parts, but defatted soy meal was found to work almost as well at lower cost. By 1938, however, Boyer had used the soy isolates to produce the world's first plant protein fiber. At the American Soybean Association meeting that year he stole the show, announcing "I am able to display for the first time in a skein form a fiber made from soybean protein . . . Two acres of land will produce 400 pounds of soybean protein." Boyer's fiber resembled a soft wool; it was loose and fluffy, white to tan in color with medium luster, and had a soft, warm feel, natural crimp, and high degree of resilience. It had 80% the strength of wool, took the same dyes, had good elongation, and did not wet as easily as wool. It could be used for upholstery in cars, filling in felt hats, or clothing. At the New York World's Fair in 1939, Ford had a display featuring a machine spinning soy protein fibers. (Note that term "spinning" is used by the textile industry for production of synthetic fibers like rayon; actually it is an extrusion/coagulation process.) By 1938 Ford sported a necktie (his favorite 75th birthday present) in which half of the material was soybean "wool." Three years later he made a public appearance in his treasured "soybean suit" (made of 25% soybean "wool" and 75% sheep's wool) with which, reported the Detroit Times (1941), he was "as delighted as a boy with his first long pants," Both he and soybeans garnered huge amounts of free publicity from the event. Boyer had made his wife a coat of the same material in 1940. In that same year Boyer, only 31, headed a staff of 25 research assistants whose average age was only 24. For his many outstanding achievements, the US Chamber of Commerce voted Boyer the Outstanding Young Man of 1940 (Garfield 1941).
As World War II approached, it suddenly became apparent that almost all protein products derived from animals (including wool, leather, meats, dairy products, and eggs) were going to be in short supply. Rationing plans for some items went into effect and prices skyrocketed. By 1939 the Ford Motor Company was importing 250,000,000 pounds of wool from Australia and Argentina, and there were fears that the supply might be cut if a war broke out. Prior to 1940 most of the upholstery for Ford cars had been made from sheep's wool but in that year Boyer developed an improved synthetic wool made of soy protein fiber. A pilot plant with a capacity of 1,000 pounds per day of the soybean "wool" was built and soon a fabric containing 25% soybean wool and 75% sheep's wool was used in the sidewall upholstery of many Ford cars. By May 1942, a new plant for making soy wool with five times the capacity of the pilot plant was under construction. Early in the war years, Ford had tried unsuccessfully to interest the armed forces in making uniforms out of soy fiber fabric. Ford persisted in his research until mid-1943, hoping to develop a textile that could sell at prices competitive with wool. Unable to do so he sold his fabrication process and machinery to the Drackett Company of Cincinnati, in November 1943. Neither Drackett nor any other firm has been commercially successful in producing textile fibers from soy protein. In 1947 Boyer, now director of scientific research for The Drackett Company, wrote an article for the Soybean Digest titled "A Modern Shirt from Ancient Soybean," summarizing this work.
All of the research on soybean "wool" led to an unexpected and extremely important discovery. The process Boyer used to make the soybean "wool" was basically the same process used today to make meat analogs from spun soy protein fibers. For the sake of simplicity, we will describe the modern process. Dehulled soybeans are crushed to make flakes, while oil is removed with a solvent at low temperature. The defatted flakes are mixed vigorously with caustic soda or lime and water to extract the protein, then the fiber is removed by centrifugation, and the protein is precipitated at the isoelectric point of minimum protein solubility (with sulfur dioxide gas or phosphoric acid) to form curds. (These closely resemble the curds used to make tofu.) The fresh (undried) curds are mixed with alkaline sodium hydroxide to form a spinning solution or "dope" having the consistency of honey. This is pumped under pressure through 15,000 pinpoint holes in a 4-inch-diameter metal spinerette plate into an acid-salt coagulating bath (phosphoric acid and sodium chloride), which precipitates and denatures the protein, causing it to congeal into slender individual protein monofilaments. The 75,000 fibers from five spinerettes in one bath are gathered into a large "tow" which is run over rollers that stretch the fibers and orient the molecules, thus giving them greater tensile strength and elasticity while reducing brittleness. The tows are then chemically treated to harden and strengthen them??, washed in hot and cold water (agitated by bubbles from below) to remove the acid and salt, and cut to length. For wool, they are dried.
When making the synthetic soybean "wool," after washing out the chemicals with water, it was the usual practice to taste the fibers to see that they had been thoroughly washed. One day at the Ford plant in 1942, Boyer, while sampling the fibers for the wool, suddenly realized that these same soy protein fibers, if made tender by omitting the protein denaturation, hardening, and insolubilization, could be used as a basic ingredient in making meatlike textured soy protein foods. Already he developed an analog for the protein fibers that grow on the outside of a sheep (wool), why not develop an analog for those on the inside, a meatless meat or meat analog? Ford had always said that since food was the most important basic commodity, it ought to be as inexpensive as possible. Boyer realized he had stumbled on an idea of tremendous potential importance that might offer a revolutionary yet simple new way to produce low-cost yet appealing protein foods. The idea would not leave him, so he explained it to Ford and Ford was extremely interested. Unfortunately, however, the war was now on and, as Boyer commented years later, "It seemed like such a far-out idea, I decided not to pursue it until after the war." The pilot plant for making soy protein fiber was shut down and used for producing aircraft engines.
Henry Ford's Passing and Legacy. On 7 April 1947 Henry Ford died at age 85 in his home at Dearborn, Michigan. The young man who dropped out of school at age 15 had gone on to become the creator of modern assembly-line mass production, the man who "put America on wheels." Ford epitomized that sort of old-fashioned American pragmatic inventiveness that is America's special genius. He was and remains an American folk hero. And because soybeans and soyfoods were one of his special interests, they basked in the light of his reflected glory. Ford's chemical and media alchemy had totally transformed the once lowly soybean into a subject of great interest to millions of people. Boyer later recalled, "Back in the 1930s, many people thought our work with soybeans was crazy." But Ford was smart enough to see the potential long before most others. For years he would drive the five miles from his home, "Fairlane," to be in Boyer's office by 8:00 A.M. to check on latest developments. He gave Boyer carte blanche with money and supported any project Boyer wanted to pursue. Boyer had tremendous admiration for Ford and deeply enjoyed working with and for him. Their joint experiments greatly enhanced the dignity of the once lowly soybean, and as the new "noble bean" began to make headlines, the world began to take notice. Over the years, Ford spent an estimated $4 million on soybean research plus an additional $10 million on physical plant and equipment to make soy products. Ford's interest in and cultivation of the soybean proved an important stimulus to expansion of soybean acreage. Although Ford's free-ranging predictions on other subjects were often wide of the mark, his frequent assertion that "soybeans will make millions of dollars of added income for farmers . . . and provide industry with materials to make needed things nobody even knows about now" has been proved correct by the passage of time. In 1947, when Ford died, American farmers were producing about 200 million bushels of soybeans. By 1980 they were producing over ten times that many (2.2 billion bushels). Numerous writers have commented on Ford's contribution to soy:"
"Ford has done more to promote the soybean industry in the United States than perhaps any one person in the nation." Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette, 14 December 1939.
"When history is written and the achievements of Henry Ford are chronicled, the Soy Bean victory will stand out as his foremost contribution to mankind." Detroit Legal Courier, 1941.
"Through his experimentation and the publicity he gave it, Henry Ford made a substantial contribution to the increased utilization of the soybean. His work in this field, started when he was in his late sixties and carried forward until he was eighty years of age, is perhaps the outstanding achievement of his declining years. Of all Ford's accomplishments, it is possible that none pleased him more than in helping to prove that there was magic in a beanstalk" (Nevins and Hill, 1963).
Since for more than a decade Ford's highly publicized work with soybeans had made headlines, especially in Michigan and the Midwest, many people came to believe that large amounts of soybeans flowed from local farms to Ford's auto and tractor factories (Lewis 1972). Such was not the case. The publicity generated by Ford's soy project was far out of proportion to its actual importance or magnitude. Although Ford made a sincere and prolonged effort to use soybeans in the auto industry, the industry actually used only a minute fraction of the crop. Nevertheless the publicity Ford generated was to be of lasting aid to the fledgling soybean industry, and the research on soy protein foods, carried on by Boyer, would soon begin to show great promise. Boyer also later commented that if Ford had lived longer, he would surely have been active in promoting soyfoods and thus would have greatly accelerated their introduction into American diets.
Boyer's Development of Meat Analogs. Throughout the war years, the idea of using spun protein fibers as the basis of human foods, meat analogs, returned to Boyer again and again. As mentioned above, in 1943 the Drackett Company in Cincinnati, Ohio (which made Drano and Windex) bought out the Ford protein spinning operation, taking the process, the equipment, and Robert Boyer with them to Cincinnati. Boyer, now Drackett's director of research, told the company of his interest in producing foods from soy proteins, but Drackett was only interested in industrial products. In early 1949 Drackett sold the soybean operations (to whom??; in mid-1957 sold agricultural operations to ADM) and Boyer went off to work on his own.
On 28 September 1949 Boyer filed for his first patent on edible protein fiber (application serial no. 118,445). It was issued in 1951, then rewritten that year in a much broader format and issued in final form in 1954 (No. 2,682,466). According to this patent (which expired in 1971 and has come to be regarded as a classic), no one can use a man-made protein fiber in a food without violating the basic claim. Basically the patent called for the use of various proteins (including soy, casein, and peanut protein) to make edible protein fibers ?? that could be transformed into meat analogs or extenders that are low in saturated fats and virtually free of cholesterol.
In September 1949 Boyer took his patent idea to his first company, Worthington Foods, Inc., a small company in Worthington, Ohio, operated by a group of businessmen and doctors, that produced meat analogs and vegetarian foods primarily for the Seventh-day Adventist membership and institution. Boyer had now been on his own for over eight months and was almost out of money. He still wasn't sure of whether the whole idea was a screwball one or not. He later commented that if Worthington had shown no interest, he probably would have just given up then and done something else. Advised to keep away from the large meat companies, who might buy up the patent and "bury" it, he went to Worthington and disclosed his concept and a pork chop prototype. Mr. Hagle, president of Worthington, was immediately very excited with the idea, but the company was reluctant to take a license until there was a source of soy protein fiber. Harrison Evans, a top Worthington employee, later recalled: "I'll never forget the day Bob Boyer came by. They brought him down with this textured protein wrapped in a piece of aluminum foil and all it looked like was rope. Just unattractive, white . . . It certainly did not look like real meat."
Worthington waited, so Boyer went to Virginia Carolina Chemical Company (VCCC) in Taftville, Connecticut; they were spinning fibers for textiles and Boyer hoped they would be able to produce soy fibers for Worthington. VCCC allowed Boyer to use their protein spinning pilot plant for research; he provided his own materials. Here he made the world's first edible protein fibers, which were used to make meat analog prototypes. Incorporating egg albumen binder plus fats and flavorings into the spun fibers, he fabricated the first man-made meatless pork chops and then made hams from soy protein. After the first successful run, nearby Corn Products Company (CPC) got very interested and ended up buying the first license on Boyer's patent (an exclusive option), which gave Boyer his first income from the project. Boyer then consulted for CPC for 9 months. The first sale of commercial edible protein fiber (produced from corn gluten) was made from CPC to Worthington (What year??) Eventually, however, it was realized that corn gluten would not work well in foods because of its unpleasant and dominant flavor. The project was dropped.
Now somewhat desperate, Boyer decided to try a meat company anyway. He went to Swift & Co. in Chicago in 1950 and they immediately liked these idea and bought exclusive rights to the patent from 1950-1954 (in 1955 they converted to nonexclusive). In 1950, the war scarcity psychology still prevailed. American consumers and food producers had watched in astonishment during the war as meats became so scarce and expensive that only a few could afford them. Thus it was easy to sell the notion that even after the war, as world population continued to rise, plant proteins would play an increasingly important role in diets throughout the world. Boyer worked with Swift for five years, but in considerable secrecy. Swift told him that if their Livestock Relations Department found out that Swift was doing research on meat analogs," all hell would break loose." Eventually Swift made and test marketed new soy protein products. However in 1952-53 livestock producers in America were in such bad shape economically that they marched on Washington, D.C. demanding a better price for their products. Swift, fearing the possibility that the media might get word of their new project and come out with headlines reading "Swift Making Synthetic Meats from Soy Protein," decided to shut down the project. None of the products was ever marketed commercially.
In 1951-52 Unilever bought a license from Boyer for spun protein isolate production throughout the rest of the world. Boyer went to England and worked with Unilever in their peanut protein isolate plant and research labs near Liverpool. Here, for the first time, his process was used in the making of sausages containing fibers of peanut protein isolate.
In 1956 Boyer returned to America and went immediately to Worthington, who had now been thinking about taking a license on Boyer's spinning patent for seven years. The first food-grade soy protein isolates were just becoming available, so the company bought the patent rights for the health food industry and asked Boyer to work with them as a consultant. Worthington eventually did more with Boyer's discovery than any company in America; this story is told in Chapter 58.10.
After Worthington purchased Boyer's license, other large food companies followed suit: Ralston Purina, General Mills, and Nabisco. General Foods developed their own related process. In 1962 Boyer joined the research staff of Ralston Purina as a Protein Scientist; he worked there until his retirement in 1971, at which time he became a Protein Consultant for Miles/Worthington.
After General Mills took a license on Boyer's product, they built a commercial-sized fiber spinning plant at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and developed their Bontrae line which featured Bac-O's, a spun fiber analog resembling cooked bacon bits (Year??). The venture was impressive in scope and the product was a real sensation, the biggest thing that had happened to Boyer's idea to date. (The product is now made with extruded soy flour.) The whole venture had a profound effect on the thinking of other large food producing companies concerning soy protein foods. Boyer was now spending 50% of his time with Worthington and 25% each with General Mills and Ralston.
Boyer's years of research eventually began to pay off in terms of handsome royalties from his patents, of which he now had more than thirty, some shared with Ford. These lasted until the patent expired in 1971. Now any company can use the protein spinning process without having to buy a license or pay fees. In 1981 the main American companies using spun protein fibers in foods were Worthington Foods, Dawson Mills in Minnesota (which bought General Mills' equipment), Loma Linda Foods in California, and Ralston Purina. In Europe there are two companies in the Netherlands, one in Denmark (Nutana), and one in Belgium using food-grade spun protein fibers. And there was one company in Japan (Which??).
Most manufacturers of meat analogs in the US agree that the general market has been disappointing, but that the idea is simply ahead of its time, which will inevitably come as meat prices continue their rapid rise. The vegetarian or "motivated" market (and especially the Seventh-day Adventist sector) showed a steady increase each year. No sales figures are available on the total market size.
When asked in 1980 how he liked the newest generation of meat analogs, Boyer replied that he found the quality disappointing, since the producers have to make compromises in equipment and processing to keep costs down. A researcher can get much better textures and flavors in his lab working by hand. Another problem is the subtle beany flavors that result from isolates made from typical defatted soy meal rather than specially defatted soy meal that can be made to contain almost no beany flavor. Boyer eats store-bought meat analogs (including bacon bits) from time to time but not as a regular part of his diet. He prefers Worthington products to Loma Linda. He likes meat too, and also uses tofu quite a bit.
How about the future? Harkening back to the years of his work with Ford, Boyer said in 1981, "We're at the Model T stage right now with analogs. I'm impatient to get to the Lincoln Continental stage." He feels that the products still have a very bright future, and that when the price of meats rises to 10 or 20% above those of the analogs, sales will start a period of steady growth.
I would like to give special thanks to Robert Boyer, Warren Hartman, Dr. George Harding Sr., and the Ford Archives for their help in preparing this chapter.