Sunday, January 3, 2010

Being Inspired by Others

As a kid I learned of George Washington Carver, the brilliant humble scientist and inventor, who is one of my heroes. Although I admire a great many people, I have few heroes. What follows is taken from a website dedicated to ideas and inventors: In 1895, Carver co-authored a series of papers on the prevention and cures for fungus diseases affecting cherry plants. In 1896 he received his master's degree in agriculture and in 1897 discovered two funguses that would be named after him. Later that year Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, convinced Carver to come south and serve as the school's director of agriculture.

At Tuskegee, Carver developed his crop rotation method, which alternated nitrate producing legumes-such as peanuts and peas-with cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients. Following Carver's lead, southern farmers soon began planting peanuts one year and cotton the next. While many of the peanuts were used to feed livestock, large surpluses quickly developed. Carver then developed 325 different uses for the extra peanuts-from cooking oil to printers ink. When he discovered that the sweet potato and the pecan also enriched depleted soils, Carver found almost 20 uses for these crops, including synthetic rubber and material for paving highways.

The farmers were ecstatic with the tremendous quality of cotton and tobacco they grew later but quickly grew angry because the amount of peanuts they harvested was too plentiful and began to rot in overflowing warehouses. Within a week, Carver had experimented with and devised dozens of uses for the peanut, including milk and cheese. In later years he would produce more than 300 products that could be developed from the lowly peanut, including ink, facial cream, shampoo and soap.

Suddenly, the same farmers who cursed him now found that a new industry had sprung up that could use their surplus peanuts. Next, Carver looked at ways of utilizing the sweet potato and was able to develop more than 115 products from it including flour, starch and synthetic rubber (the United States Army utilized many of his products during World War I.)

Carver did not stop with these discoveries. From the inexpensive pecan he developed more than 75 products, from discarded corn stalks dozens of uses and from common clays he created dyes and paints. Suddenly Carver's fame grew and grew until he was invited to speak before the United States Congress and was consulted by titans of industry and invention. Henry Ford, head of Ford Motor Company invited Carver to his Dearborn, Michigan plant where the two devised a way to use goldenrod, a plant weed, to create synthetic rubber. Thomas Edison, the great inventor was so enthusiastic about that he asked Carver to move to Orange Grove, New Jersey to work at the Edison Laboratories at an annual salary of $100,000 per year and state of the art facilities. He declined the generous offer, wanting to continue on at Tuskegee.

He continued constantly working with peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans trying to produce new products. He developed more than 300 products from the peanut (including Peanut Butter), 175 from the sweet potato, and 60 from the pecan. He extracted blue, purple, and red pigments from the clay soil of Alabama. He researched the manufacture of synthetic marble from green wood shavings, rope from cornstalk fibers, and veneers from the palmetto root. During WWI, he worked to replace the textile dyes that were being imported from Europe. He ended up producing and replacing over 500 different shades. In 1927, he invented a process for producing paints and stains from soybeans.

Although he did hold three patents, Carver never patented most of the many discoveries he made while at Tuskegee, saying "God gave them to me, how can I sell them to someone else?" Three different patents were issued: US 1,522,176 Cosmetics and Producing the Same. Jan. 6,1925 George Washington Carver. Tuskegee, Alabama. US 1,541,478 Paint and Stain and Producing the Same. June 9, 1925 George Washington Carver. Tuskegee, Alabama US 1,632,365 Producing Paints and Stains June 14, 1927 George Washington Carver. Tuskegee, Alabama.

The beauty in George Washington Carver is that he did not yield to excuses, he refused to be denied, and he absolutely rejected the notion that he alone should profit from his inventions. In this obsessed society fixated on personal wealth, I yearn for the likes of Carver but insist that they be honored and compensated and that others not seek to solely benefit from their work which has often been the case for such scientists in the past, even the present.


Brosreview said...

Beautiful story! Very inspiring indeed! Thanks for sharing!

Corrie Howe said...

I knew about Carver and peanuts, but not about pecans, corns stalks, clay, etc.

Thanks for this mini-history lesson.

Dave Wheeler said...


George Washington Carver was indeed a remarkable and inspiring individual.

His observation "Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.". This simple and practical piece of advice will benefit any person ,of any culture, at any stage of one's life!

You sure know how to pick your heroes Auntie J!

Judith Ellis said...

Ah, Ajey, it's a beautiful story indeed and Carver is so very inspiring.

Judith Ellis said...

Yes, Corrie, don't forget the paints! Happy to share the life of this extraordinary man and accomplished scientist. He has been my inspiration for some time.

Judith Ellis said...

Dave - That's a great quote and, oh, so very true. There is also the all-important lessons of grace, wisdom, temperance, forgiveness and humility to accompany education. Education and freedom without these can be destructive. Carver seemed to possess all of these. This is why he is my longstanding hero.

septembermom said...

My oldest son did a biography project on George Washington Carver. I helped him with his research. It was amazing to see how much he accomplished. He had a truly creative and inquisitive mind. Thanks for the post Judith!

Judith Ellis said...

Kelly - That's awesome!