Agricultural Researchers

John Bennet Lawes. Image from Rothamsted Research.

There is currently bit of a hoo-ha going on at Rothamsted Research over genetically engineered wheat.  Regardless what you think of the rights and wrongs of genetic engineering we should recognize the two men who established this institution, Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901) and John Bennet Lawes (1814-1900).

Almost exactly 169 years ago, on 1st June 1843 Joseph, who was trained as an analytic chemist, started working on John’s agricultural estate at Rothamsted, Hertfordshire.  Together they set up a series of experiments to investigate plant and animal nutrition.  Their scientific partnership lasted for years.

Joseph Henry Gilbert. Image from Wikisource but originally published in 1894.

Their devotion to scientific research meant that rather than accepting standard practices on trust they designed experiments to provide evidence for what actually worked.  For instance they demonstrated that plants needed certain chemicals in the soil to grow well.  In the early days this was poorly understood and they had a long running argument with Justus Liebig (a prominent scientist of the day and inventor of the OXO cube) who thought that nitrogen-fixing legumes drew what they needed from the atmosphere.  After 20 years Justus agreed that Joseph and John were right.

John and Joseph probably would have approved of growing genetically modified wheat in fields to see what happened.  They were both advocates of artificial fertilizers, not because organic fertilizers didn’t work, but because they believed that in order to feed the growing population new methods were necessary.  Their turn of mind meant that they tended to opt for chemical solutions.  Looking back we know that artificial fertilizers didn’t instantly solve malnutrition in 19th century Britain.  Part of their legacy should be to encourage us to take a longer and wider view of the issues.


A woman who invented a dishwasher

Josephine Cochrane. Image courtesy of Shelby County Historical Society.

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) was an American socialite who invented a dishwasher in 1886.  Her name is sometimes written Cochran but she added the “e” to make it sound better!

It wasn’t because she was fed-up of doing the washing-up, as a wealthy woman in the 19th century she had servants to do the work.  She was concerned that her fine china was getting bashed about and she wanted a machine that would clean the dishes carefully.   Josephine apparently said, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

In fact dishwashers had already been invented, a number appear in patent books before the 1880s, but these early models didn’t perform very well.   In Josephine’s dishwasher the crockery was held in wire compartments set onto a wheel inside a copper boiler.  A motor turned the contraption while hot soapy water was sprayed onto the dishes.  You can see some blueprints of her design on the MIT inventor of the week website.

To start with she sold it as a domestic appliance but there were few takers.   She didn’t give up and, in 1893, her dishwasher won a prize at the Chicago World Fair.   A few years later Josephine opened her own factory with the mechanic who had helped make the prototype (George Butters).  Her company was bought by the Hobart Manufacturing Company and later became part of the Kitchen Aid Company.

It took a long time for dishwashers to catch on in British kitchens.  Early models were expensive and most people, especially those with servants, considered it better to wash by hand.   Today 40% of British households have a dishwasher, which according to a recent Business Week article , is a lot less than other countries including Spain (49%), France (52%), Germany (77%) and the USA ( 78%).

The Poor Live off Bread, Jam and Tea

Maud Pember Reeves. Image from

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves (1865-1953) was a landmark book. It described how the “respectable” working poor lived and, in doing so, provided evidence to support arguments for child benefit and school meals.

The book, first published in 1913, was based on four years of research by the Fabian Women’s Group.  This group set out to investigate the impact of nutrition on the health of mothers and their children because it was known that a greater proportion of the babies born in poor areas died compared to those born in wealthier areas.   Each week the Fabian women visited homes in Lambeth, a poor part of London, and interviewed working class mothers.  The notebooks recording these visits are held by the LSE library.

The research looked at families with a weekly wage of between 18 and 26 shillings and revealed how little money was left for food once the rent and other necessities had been covered.  Even in cases where the husband brought home his entire wage (rather than spending most it down the pub or elsewhere) and where the mother was deemed a “good manager” the meals provided inadequate nutrition.

“Bread…is their chief food.  It is cheap; they like it; it comes into the house ready cooked; it is always at hand, and needs no plate and spoon.” [1]

The book challenged some conventional views of poverty.  It rejected what Maud described as the “gospel of porridge”.  It explained to well-meaning middle-class philanthropists that although porridge might be the cheapest and most nutritious breakfast it is not a sensible option if you live in two rooms without a stove, the only saucepan you have is burnt and / or your children don’t like it.

Maud was brought up in New Zealand and moved to Britain with her husband when he became New Zealand’s Agent-General.  In London Maud was active in left-wing politics and the Fabian Women’s Group was started at a meeting in her home. During the First World War she worked in the Ministry of Food as the Director of the Education and Propaganda but she withdrew from public life after the death of her son on active duty in 1917.

A century after the book was published I think it is time to go back to Lambeth and re-do this research.

[1] Round About a Pound a Week, edition published by Virago Press in 1997,  p.97

Electrical Trailblazer

Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Flash Freezing

This American food hero has had a significant impact on British shopping and eating habits but only since the 1950s when domestic freezers became more common.

Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) was born New York and studied biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  For this story what is important is that between 1912 and 1916 he was working in Labrador, Newfoundland, a place at the top Eastern edge of Canada which gets extremely cold.His field journals from this period are held in the archives of Amherst College and reveal how he learnt about freezing food.  In Newfoundland he saw how the Inuit used the freezing conditions to preserve fresh fish and meat.  The arctic cold meant that things froze extremely fast and he concluded that it was the rapid freezing that meant the food tasted good months later.   Clarence thought he could make money out of this knowledge.

In the early 1920s he began experimenting with frozen fish.  At this time there were plenty of other people working on freezing technology but two things made Clarence’s efforts stand out.  First he developed a machine that could freeze food quickly, which gave the ice-crystals less time to grow and meant that the food was in better condition when it was defrosted.  Second, he packaged the frozen food into small waxed boxes, which were attractive to buyers.  This boosted the commercial success of Clarence’s frozen foods.  In 1929 he sold his firm and his patents, to organisations which later became the General Foods Corporation.  He continued to be involved, as a corporate executive until the late 1930s and his name lives on in the company brand.

The Rochdale Pioneers

The Rochdale Pioneers

In 1844 a group of 28 men kick started the co-operative movement by setting up the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society.

This society bought key essentials in bulk and sold them to members at reasonably prices.   The group rented a room at 31 Toad Lane (in Rochdale, obviously), made a counter out of planks and barrels and  sold butter, oats, sugar and candles.  Only members of the co-op could buy from this shop but anyone could join as long as he or she paid a small subscription.

The rules of how the co-op would work were clearly set out.  These stated that;  all sales would be in cash, no credit would be given, the food sold would be pure, any profits would be shared amongst the members, that men and women would be equally entitled to participate and that members would have regular reports on how things were going.  These rules have evolved into the “Rochdale Principles of Co-operation” which underpin the modern co-operative movement.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum , on the site of the original store, is due to re-open later this year and, if you can’t wait for that, the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester is a great source of information.

German Scientist Discovers Junk Food

Frederick (or Friedrich) Accum (1769-1838) was a German chemist who wrote about the adulteration of food.

Frederick trained as an apothecary in Germany before coming to London in 1793 and where threw himself into the scientific scene.   He established himself as freelance researcher, lecturer and purveyor of chemical equipment.   He worked on various projects, for example experiments with gas lighting, and, for a time, he was employed as Humphry Davy’s assistant.

In 1820 he published, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons,  which explained that much of the food and drink being sold was not what it claimed to be.  The book sold out very quickly.  Some of the practices revealed were fraudulent, e.g. selling roasted peas and beans as coffee, while others were downright dangerous, e.g. the use of poisonous chemicals, such as lead, copper and mercury, to enhance the colour wine and sweets.  As well as describing the problem and explaining how to test for adulterants, the brave (of foolhardy) Frederick published the names and addresses of traders convicted of adulteration.  This made him some powerful enemies and, probably, lead to his public disgrace.

Shortly after the publication of his book Frederick was accused of vandalising books from Royal Institution’s library.  This might have been a set up but he was found guilty and in 1821 he fled to Germany where he worked as a teacher.