He tried and failed. He tried again and again… and succeeded.

Last week I posted the sad story of John Gorrie, who invented refrigeration but died penniless.  Today’s story has a much happier ending.  Gail Borden Jr. is remembered as the inventor of condensed milk.  Nevertheless, his road to success was far from smooth.

In the early 1800s, Borden was a land surveyor who helped plan the Texas cities of Houston and Galveston.  He also helped write the Texas constitution.  But after the deaths of his wife and children, Borden vowed to make pioneer life easier by finding better ways to preserve food.

Remember this was still the age before refrigeration.  Borden’s first experiment was a dehydrated meat biscuit, based on Native American pemmican.  But his company failed after losing a military contract to competitors, leaving him penniless.

After Borden saw several children die from drinking contaminated milk, he decided to find a way to preserve milk indefinitely.  It took three years of work, but Borden was able to extract 75 percent of the water from milk while preserving the taste with sugar.  His final breakthrough was to perform the entire process in airtight pans, which ensured sterility.  He applied for a patent on May 14, 1853.

Borden finally had a product, but he had no money to manufacture or market it.  He tried three times to launch a business without success.  Finally, by sheer chance, he met a financier on a train trip who admired his enthusiasm.  The two struck a deal and created the New York Condensed Milk Company.  Competitors could not duplicate Borden’s success without his patented airtight process.  A few years later, the American Civil War created skyrocketing demand for condensed milk.  Borden’s fortune was finally made.

Despite his now immense wealth, Borden often spent his later years in New York’s slums giving money to the needy.  He died in 1874 in Borden, Colorado – a town named after him.  His company later changed its name to “the Borden Company” as well.  Borden’s gravestone bears this epitaph: “I tried and failed.  I tried again and again and succeeded.”

Today, Agilent is a world leader in ensuring food safety and quality.  Agilent GCs and HPLCs have been used to detect harmful substances in evaporated milk, including methionine sulfoxide (a naturally occurring byproduct) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (an environmental pollutant).

Agilent equipment was also used in a study that showed how buttermilk and cream residue – which are rich in milk proteins and phospholipids – can improve heat stability during the processing of evaporated milk.


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