On Point: It wasn't Ford's idea, but he bought it

By John Kominicki

The Daily Record Newswire

It's the peak of grilling season; time to give a tip of the hat to Orin Stafford.

Um, who?

I speak of the eminent Ohio-born, Kansas-educated Orin F. Stafford, who chaired the chemistry department at the University of Oregon beginning in the early 1900s. Stafford had done his graduate work in ammonia solutions, but up in Eugene he took a sudden and decided interest in charcoal, which was then mostly used as a commercial heating and fuel source.

Charcoal has been around for millennia, of course, prized because it burns longer, hotter and with much less smoke than wood. Stafford was especially interested in improving its manufacture and speeding the cooling time required.

Back then, manufacturers packed 75 cords of wood into what was called a batch kiln, got a fire going, then cut off most of the oxygen, leaving the pile to smolder its way into giant chunks of charcoal. It took days to cool down to the point at which it could be handled and transported. The railroads, in fact, wouldn't take on charcoal that hadn't been cooled for at least five days.

Stafford set about inventing a rotary kiln, which used ground-up wood or sawdust and significantly hastened the cooking and cooling process. The problem: You ended up with charcoal powder. How, he mused, to turn it into manageable pieces that would withstand the rigors and high temperatures of commercial use?

He settled on a mix of ground charcoal, starch, tar and a little water "to make the starch sticky" with the resulting mash pressed into small, pillow-shaped lumps that were cured briefly at 400 degrees Celsius, then air dried. His patent, filed 89 years ago this month, referred to the little pillows as "briquettes," after the French diminutive for brick.

He narrowly beat a competitor, Ellsworth Zwoyer, to the punch.

Shift 1,700 miles east, to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where Henry Ford had acquired several thousand acres of timberland to supply wood for his Model Ts. Wood for cars, you ask? Yes, early Fords contained significant amounts of lumber, including wood-spoked wheels and wooden cabin frames, seat supports, even parts of the engine cowling.

Ford had located the forest tract with the help of E. G. Kingsford, a lumberman who was married to one of Henry's cousins and who owned one of the automaker's earliest dealerships. Ford built a lumber mill on the site and, as thanks, named the company town that sprang up around it after Kingsford.

You may know the story from here. The ever-frugal Ford was looking for ways to use the mill's scrap and sawdust. He heard of the briquetting process, a deal was negotiated, and soon a Kingsford plant was producing Ford brand charcoal "briquets," the ideal fuel for picnic cooking on the road. Preferably the road traveled in a Ford.

In the early days, in fact, the briquettes, and portable grills on which to use them, were sold exclusively at Ford dealerships.

Ford himself boasted that he could get 681 pounds of charcoal from each ton of scrap, making him the early king of sustainability.

Ford, the motor company, sold the charcoal operation to an investment group in 1951, and the brand name was changed to reflect the company's geographic location. Kingsford Products later moved to Kentucky and is now owned by the Clorox Co., which financier and summer Long Islander Carl Icahn is attempting to buy.

There is constant debate and endless Web conjecture about what goes into modern charcoal, so I went directly to the source. According to a friendly Kingsford consumer specialist named Lynn, Kingsford contains charred wood and coal for heat, limestone to give the coals the gray ash that signals they're ready for use, sodium nitrate and sawdust to speed ignition, and starch to bind it all together.

That's it. The briquettes do not contain any petroleum products or, as is often reported, borax. Lynn, in fact, seemed offended when I mentioned it.

"Borax?" she said. "No, no, no."

The company's popular Match Light brand is sprayed with an accelerant but, like the other versions, does not otherwise contain petroleum products. Or borax.

Kingsford, the town, is home to about 6,000 residents. A Ford assembly plant there that turned out Woody station wagons in the 1930s and Waco transport gliders during World War II is shuttered. Most locals work at a foundry or paper mill in the area. The National Ski Jump Championships are held at nearby Iron Mountain each February.

Orin Stafford was granted two additional patents, including a 1934 award for the rotating kiln he'd envisioned back in the early 1900s. He died in 1941 after what his Science magazine obituary said was a painful illness that lasted two months.

I'm going to fire up a bag of Kingsford in his honor this weekend.

Published: Wed, Jul 27, 2011