Thursday, July 03, 2008


I will be celebrating the fourth of July, our nation’s birthday. But this year I will also be celebrating the fifth of July, because on the fifth of July in 1883 the U.S. government granted patent #278967 for a formula of something that had never existed in the world before. The patent was granted for an invention that every one reading this has probably used at least once in the past year, and if you haven’t used it in the past year, you really ought to. It was the brainchild of an energetic young marketing genius with some help from his brother, and the invention made them both rich – even though their original idea was pretty much a bust.
The story begins with a pharmacist in London named Gustave Mellin. Like many other pharmacists of his day, Gustave was looking for a magic elixir that would make him rich. In the second half of the nineteenth century, all over Europe and America, ambitious young men were throwing chemicals into pots and kettles and selling the resultant concoctions to unsuspecting guinea pigs (aka customers). Some of these latter day alchemists killed people. A few got very rich. Candle maker William Procter and his brother-in-law, soap maker James Gamble, started their company in 1837, but they hit it big with their Ivory Soap, which they introduced in the 1880’s.
It was an Atlanta pharmacist, Dr. John Pemberton, who cooked up Coke-a-cola in his back yard in 1886. And Caleb Bradham of New Bern, North Carolina invented Pepsi Cola in his pharmacy during the summer of 1893. In Cincinnati in 1886 Robert Johnson, who had worked as a pharmacists’ apprentice, joined with his brothers James and Mead in forming Johnson & Johnson, to sell their inventions of band aids and first aid kits. But the guiding light for Gustave Mellin was Henri Nestle, a Swiss citizen who in 1867, made his reputation and his fortune by saving a premature infant with his own recipe of powdered milk and ground up wheat.
Gustav’s Mellin’s version of Nestle’s formula, which he inventively called “Mellin’s Food” would eventually become Nestle’s principle competitor. And the success of Mellin attracted the attention of a young, dashing, handsome, ambitious and driven Englishman from the tiny village of Ruardean, in Gloucestershire. James Horlick began as an apprentice at the feet of the master, and what he learned from Mellin was that marketing was at least as important as the invention itself. Nestle’s warned that “impure milk is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.” But Mellin’s fought back with free samples, and a pseudo-scientific booklet convincing new mothers his formula was better for their babies than breast milk. But working for somebody else was no way to get rich, and in 1873 James quit his job and immigrated to America, to join his younger brother William in Chicago. And he took with him a little something he had been working on.
In 1860, for the last time in history, the value of American agricultural goods was greater than the products from her factories. And amazingly this shift happened at same time that American farms were becoming the breadbasket of the world. Chief among this new bounty which was flooding the world markets was wheat and rye. Nestle’s formula was based on the idea of releasing the proteins trapped in those grains, and making them easy to transport over vast distances. The similar “Mellins Food” was eventually made in Boston, but sold out of his London offices. And that is why James and William (below) Horlick had emigrated to America. The money was still in England, but the source of that wealth was now in America. And within weeks after James arrived in Chicago the brothers set up J&W Horlicks to market their new baby wonder food, “Diastroid”.
But in the mid-1870’s Chicago was not the place to do that. Chicago's recovery from the Great Fire of 1871 had been spectacular, and by 1873, while the rest of the nation was in a recession, Chicago was booming, even hosting the Inter-State Industrial Exposition.
What William and James (above) needed was a community with cheap property values, a ready supply of clean water, an already industrialized work force, easy access to their raw materials (wheat and rye) and to shipping routes. They found just what they were looking 60 miles North of Chicago, where the Root River enters Lake Michigan, in Racine, Wisconsin.
The city had been incorporated in 1848 with a population of 3,000, and by 1870 was approaching 30,000, filling with English, Danes, Czechs, Swedes and Norwegians. The foundation of the economy was the town’s harbor and rail connections. Early on Fanning Mills built heavy farm equipment here, including machines to separate the wheat and barley from its chaff, the slurry of which is called a malt. That created a pool of trained factory workers which attracted Jerome Case who built his heavy equipment factory there, and S.C. Johnson who established his cleaning products factory in Racine. And in 1873 the Reverend Carhart of Racine actually built a steam powered auto-mobile. It was a town that respected brains, innovation and hard work.
So, in 1877 the Horlick brothers opened their single story factory in town, making "Horlick's Infant & Invalids Food" and got ready for success.
It was a little slow in coming. Oh, the baby formula business was doing okay, but it was by now very competitive and not the rocket to success that James had dreamed about along the banks if the River Wye, back in England. Still, in 1883, James’ preeminence in the field of baby food had been confirmed with the new patent, thus effectively limiting their competition. In 1890 James returned to England to be closer to the money, and to handle the marketing of their infant cuisine empire. In 1908 Horlick’s opened a new, much larger plant in Racine.
The publicity breakthrough came in 1909 when explorers Robert Peary, Amundsen and Scott all three pick Horlik’s product to supply protein for their assaults on the North and South Poles. Overnight Horlick's food was in the forefront of the "health food" craze. And it remains a popular health food item to this day. That same year, 1909, the brothers opened a new plant in New Zealand, to supply mothers and explorers down under with portable protein. But that was not the advancement that changed human life.
But it was in the early years of the 20th centur, that the great revolutionary event did occure. It’s unclear who did it first, but my bet is it was the new player on the stage. They were called "soda jerks" because in the early years they were required to jerk on the levers to dispense the carbonated water that was the main ingrediant of their trade. I doubt that it was an employee of Horlick who first made the discovery, else their name would have been enshrined in company legend. Besides, after all, it was a small step and may have been taken in several places at about about the same time.
Remember the Horlick formula was a concoction of ground wheat, dried just-sprouted barley malt and powdered milk, and mixed in water or milk. And then somebody added ice cream, and thus was born the malted milk shake.
I doubt that most people realize that everything “malted” can only be made under license from Horlick’s, including malted milk, malted milk balls, malted tablets or disks and malted “shakes”. Malted is a flavor that is owned. It was invented. It does not appear anywhere in nature. It started out as baby food, then became a health food before it became a treat of magical proportions. And it gave all those soda jerks something to serve with the ice cream Sundaes they had invented, because carbonated water was considered too racy a drink to be served on the Lord's day.
But surely, before the judgment of God, the invention of the cold, frothy and thick Malted Milk Shake will count on the plus side for humanity come the judgement day.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008


I was 18 years old in 1969, and the future seemed like a steady progression toward a better world. Well, at that age your hormones usually don’t let you see beyond your own nose, and there was plenty of news clutter to distract me. Judy Garland had just died and the Beatles had a new album out; Abbey Road. Oh, and two months earlier humans had first set foot upon the moon. And so I could be forgiven for missing the significance on Tuesday, September 9th when, just after noon, Allegheny Airlines flight #853 lifted her wheels off the runway at Boston’s Logan Airport and clawed her way into the sky.
The aircraft was a DC-9 type 30, meaning she was the third upgrade from the original DC-9 production model, and had the tail designation N988FJ. The captain was 47 year old James Elrod, who had 900 hours at the controls of DC-9’s. His first officer was 26 year old William Heckendorn, who had 650 hours in the twin engine jet. The jet smoothly climbed over the blue collar Boston suburbs before turning south. Allegheny fight #853 had scheduled stops in Baltimore, then Cincinnati and Indianapolis and was scheduled to terminate late that afternoon in St. Louis, where passengers could connect with flights for the West Coast. Ah, if only I had been paying attention.
The DC-9 had first gone into service just four years earlier, and from the start the plane was a workhorse. She was designed as a short to mid-range passenger jet, unglamorous, uncomplicated and so reliable that some 2,400 were eventually produced at the Long Beach, California plant. The DC-9-type 30 had a swept wingspan of 93 feet, and was 133 feet long from nose to the swept fins of her high “T” tail. Her two rear mounted Pratt & Whitney JTD8D-7 turbofan engines could propel her through the air at over 500 MPH above 30,000 feet for over 2,000 miles. This particular DC-9-30 had first flown in 1968 and the air frame had only 3,170 hours on it.
After arriving at “Friendship International Airport” (BWI) at Baltimore, 45 miles north of Washington, D.C., Allegheny flight #853 picked up 16 more passengers and then headed for its next stop: Cincinnati (CVG). Waiting there were 64 people who were supposed to connect with TWA fight #69 from New York City, which was scheduled to continue on to Indianapolis. But TWA Flight #69 was delayed. And as often happened in the days before de-regulation, TWA and Allegheny offered any available seats on Allegheny Flight #853 to any TWA passengers who wanted them. Customer service was the only selling point between the airlines then, back before deregulation had “improved” the business.
Thirty-eight passengers took TWA up on their gracious offer. So when the Flight #853 left CVG at 3:16 PM, almost 40 minutes behind schedule, she carried 78 passengers, and a crew of four – 81 souls on board. She took a compass heading of 306 degrees, heading northwest into airway V97.
Indianapolis (IND) Weir Cook Airport (named after a World War I ace) was just 99 air miles from CVG. So Flight #853 climbed to only 10,000 feet for what was supposed to be a mere 35 minute flight. That would have put Flight #853 rolling up to the terminal at IND at about 3:50 pm.
At 3:22 PM Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control ordered Flight #853 to descend to 6,000 feet. At 3:36 PM #853 responded, “…leaving 10 thousand, (unintelligible) southeast of Shelbyville.” Shelbyville is a small community 26 miles southwest of Indianapolis, at which the Federal Aviation Administration has located a VOS transmitter, (for Very high frequency Omni range Station), and above which flights following V97 for IND switch to a heading of 304 degrees. Indianapolis Flight Control immediately instructed #853 to continue its descent to 2,500 feet, to shift its heading to 280 degrees and to contact IND approach control for runway three-one left. The crew immediately responded, “853 cleared down two thousand five hundred and report reaching.” They had done all of this a hundred times before. The only thing different this time was that Flight #853 was 40 minutes late.
Hearing the crew acknowledge his instructions, controller Merrill McCammack briefly turned his attention to Allegheny Flight #820, which was inbound to IND from the West. When he returned to the radar screen about a minute later, Flight # 853 had disappeared. McCammack called out to flight #853, but there was no response. At about 3:40 PM McCammack notified the Indiana State Police of a possible airliner crash, but by this time they were also receiving frantic phone calls from the Shady Acres Mobile Home Park, in Fairland, Indiana. Two planes had collided over the resident’s heads and crashed virtually on top of them.
The only body found intact was Bob Carey’s. He was a student pilot, flying a Cherokee PA-28, on a cross country training flight, and he was following all the rules. He had filed his flight plan, he had called in to IND control to notify them of his presence and he was following Visual Flight Rules, which amounts to keeping your eyes open. What he could not have known, and what he could have done nothing about if he had known, is that the radar at IND was too weak to pick him up at 26 miles from the airport. But what the system of air traffic control then in effect did not take into account was that while Cary’s Cherokee was flying at around 150 miles per hour, the DC-9 was on approach at closer to 400 mph. That meant that the closing speed of those two aircraft was much too fast for human reactions to respond to, even given the generally good visibility on this day. The Cherokee slammed into the tail of the DC-9, cutting it off and slicing the small plane in half at the wing root. The relative closing speed was 350 miles an hour. Cary had no warning, and was found still strapped in his seat. Pilots Elrod and Heckendorn had no warning either. At 3:29 PM and 14 seconds, just after confirming their new instructions Heckendorn was reading out the sliding altitude changes: “Out of thirty-five for twenty-five” One second later Elrod says, “I’m going down”. One second after that is the sound of objects hitting the cockpit ceiling, followed by the landing gear warning and then the stall warning and vibration. Ten seconds later the recording ends with the aircraft’s impact in a soy bean field, 100 yards from the mobile home park. Eighty-two human beings and about four million dollars ($23.5 million in 2007) worth of equipment been destroyed in something under fifteen seconds.
At this point you expect to hear the National Transportation Safety Board investigation forced a change in regulations so this specific disaster would never happen again. The report reads, “The board determines the probable cause of this accident to be the deficiencies in the collision avoidance capability of the Air Traffic Control system of the Federal Aviation Administration in a terminal area wherein there was mixed instrument fight rules (IFR) and visual flight rules (VFR)…include(ing) the inadequacy of the see-and-avoid concept under circumstances of this case; the technical limitations of radar in detecting all aircraft; and the absence of ….adequate separation of …mixed traffic in terminal areas.”
And yet, on August 31, 1986, in clear skies, another DC-9 – 30, Aeromexico Flight #448, collided in midair with another Piper Cherokee PA-28 over Cerritos, California, killing 85 people, including 15 on the ground. This time part of the blame was laid on the Piper pilot who was unfamiliar with the area and had entered the LAX terminal area without clearance. But the secondary fault was again laid on “…limitations of the see and avoid concept to ensure traffic separation…”.
Would you call this progress, or just more clutter?
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Sunday, June 29, 2008


I read the headline in the Chicago Sun Times three times: “Another Hazmat Incident At Chocolate Factory”. The words seemed to be English, but they didn’t seem to make sense. Hazards and Chocolate: under what weird and twisted circumstances would those two ideas go together? We let our children eat this stuff! And it could kill them? In what universe is Chocolate a hazard and not a treat? Evidently, in the Chicago universe, that’s where! The Chicago papers were not clear on the details. So I have investigated.
It seems, according to officials at Blommer Chocolate Company, that just before 11AM on Sunday June 9th, for unknown reasons, a white powder used in the manufacture of chocolate gave off a toxic “ammonia-like” gas, which sparked a level two hazardous materials response. A few minutes later the Hazard Materials Team from the Chicago Fire Department reached the fourth floor of the Bloomer Chocolate Company factory at 600 West Kinzie Street, where they found two men unconscious and one incapacitated. They did not record any dangerous levels of gasses, but two of the workers were near death. They were rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where one of those men, Geraldo Castillo, who had worked at the plant for less than a year, was pronounced dead at 11:49 AM. Pending toxicology tests, which will take about six weeks to complete, that is where the matter currently stands. And it all seems rather unlikely.
In fact everything about chocolate seems unlikely. The coca tree only grows within 20 degrees of the equator, because if the temperature ever falls below 59 degrees F, the trees die. The touchy bean seemed rather unlikely to become one of the most popular fruits on earth. But it did, even though it was such trouble to grow and so fragile that the Mayan and Inca rulers had to force their subject tribes to grow Cocoa as a form of tax. And it seems that the first great additive to chocolate was sugar. The Spanish conquistadors used sugar to convert the bitter “xocolatl” (meaning “bitter water”) - because of the alkaloids theobromine and phenetnylamine in the chocolate - into something someone besides the Mayan royalty could actually swallow. But the whole process seems to argue for intelligent design.
First the almond-like cocoa seeds are allowed to ferment in a compost-like pile on the ground for five to seven days. I can certainly understand how that could happen by accident. It’s the same process that humans used to stumble on wine and grain fermentation. Then the seeds are spread out, dried, cleaned, and then roasted. Okay, there could have been a fire in an equatorial rain forest hit by drought. The husk or shell is then removed, leaving behind the chocolate “nibs”, which are then ground up and liquefied. Okay, that could never happen by accident. Somebody had to have done that on purpose. Why? The ground up nibs are now separated between cocoa solids and cocoa butter liquor. Add sugar and you’ve got sweet chocolate. It is so simple. Add powdered milk and you get milk chocolate. But that could hardly kill you: unless you are a dog or a parrot, who can’t digest the theobromime. But the Chicago Sun Times was fairly specific about the death. It said that thirty year old employee Geraldo Castillo had been killed after breathing in an “ammonia-like gas” used in “making” chocolate. Now, I can find only one additive that even comes close to being ammonia - like; Ammonia.
Ammonia is a compound, consisting of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. The single nitrogen atom has a lone electron in its outer orbit, which means it eagerly mixes in water or air: but not in chocolate. Mixing ammonia with water produces urine. And mixing ammonia with chocolate produces a nasty tasting poisonous chocolate, which sort of defeats the whole purpose of each individual ingredient. And when the urine evaporates it re-releases the ammonia, which is what urine smells like. One can only assumed that when ammonia laced chocolate melts, it also smells like urine. But….
…should the human lungs suck in a concentration of ammonia in as little as 35 parts per million parts of air in as little as 15 minutes, then the human’s lungs are burned, which make it impossible for the surfactant in the lungs to transfer the oxygen in the air to the iron in the blood, and the victim suffocates. And that is what happened to Geraldo Castillo. Somehow he breathed in ammonia while he was making chocolate. And then even with an oxygen mask over his face pumping pure oxygen into his nose and throat, Gerald Castillo died gasping desperately for air in a room filled with air. He might as well have been living on Saturn or Jupiter. How could this have happened? This appears to have an entirely unanticipated side effect of the global economy and an excess of environmental correctness, all brought to you by “Palsgaard”. Now, if you eat chocolate the odds are you have never heard of Palsgaard. If you make chocolate on an industrial scale, this company is world famous. Palsgaard doesn’t make chocolate, but you can’t make chocolate without them, because they make emulsifiers.
An emulsion is a mixture of two un-mixable compounds, like oil and water in salad dressing. If you add an emulsifier, like, say, egg yokes, a bond can be formed (by shaking up the bottle) that will remain stable long enough for you to pour it over your salad. In the case of chocolate the emulsifier is PolyGlycerol PolyRicinoleate 4448, or PGPR 4448, and it is only made by Palsgaard. The second “P” in PGPR stands for Ammonium Phosphatide, and if this was a television documentary on the Discovery Channel, there would be a music sting right here. You make PGPR 4448 out of rapeseed oil and glycerol, which is combined with phosphoric acid at one end, and then, since in an emulsifier everything has to balance, with a stinger of ammonia on the other end.
In the old days (in this case, last year) Blommer Chocolate in Chicago would have used a lecithin as an emulsifier, (which is why you see lecithin listed as an ingredient on so many energy bars, cake and pancake mixes and other food products.) In fact the lecithin and the PGPR 4448 are both used to just keep the chocolate from sticking to the vats it is mixed in. And here, the plot and the Chocolate thickens. Americans make lecithin out of soy beans. But soy beans are often GM plants – G-M standing for Genetically Modified. Folks in Europe are hypersensitive about GM plants, in part because they get most of their soy beans from the U.S., and, you may have heard, we are their competitor. So Euro-Environmentalists (and Euro farmers and Euro food corporations have paid off Euro-politicians who) have made such a boogieman out of GM, read “U.S.” that over the last decade Euro-Envio types have made food companies afraid to even brush past a GM soy bean at a crowded party, for fear of being labeled a “Franken-food”.
Their alternative to the Franken- soy is PGPR 4448. Now choosing PGPR over GM Franken-soy on moral grounds makes no damn sense whatsoever. But when have the Food Police on either side of the Atlantic ever claimed to be logical? On a purely practical level the Blommer Chocolate Company is trying to standardize their chemical formulas for international trade. European officials want to know the chocolate novelty they have just let into their country is not going to make people sick. And Europeans are not used to seeing lecithin on their list of ingredients. PGPR they have known and trusted for the last ten years. And Palsgaard just got a letter from the Bush Food and Drug Administration (thanks again George) saying the FDA has no objection to substituting PGPR for lecithin, one for one. Not that they tested it, but they have labeled PGPR as “GRAS” – generally recognized as safe. What could be simpler?
Death, as it turns out, for the workers at Blommer Chocolate could be as simple. They are facing a learning curve, working with old equipment and a new formula, PGPR 4448. And somehow, it appears, they are now making chocolate with an ammonia stinger. Blommer Chocolate has found a way to extract the ammonia from their chocolate and release it into the atmosphere as ammonium bicarbonate, also called "Bakers' Ammonia". Nobody is quite sure how they did it yet, and nobody wanted them to do it, but they did it.
This is not the end of the world, but you know, it could be, someday. Someday some paper pusher is going to make an assumption that they are really not qualified to make and all of us are going to suck in a great big chunk of ammonia or something equally as deadly, and that will be the end of us all. And it won’t be with a bang, or with a whimper, or even a decent self respecting, “oops.” The stupid fools who kill us all will probably not even be aware of what they did.

And we call this progress. And always have.
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