Tools & Technology

A Chemical Empire Thriving on an Ancient Ocean

Dow Chemical Company began when the innovative mind of Herbert Dow met the rich quantities of magnesium, chlorine, calcium, and bromine stored deep below the soils of Midland, Michigan.

By Patrick H. Shea | October 11, 2009
Dow Evans Flour Mill

The Evans Flour Mill, ca. 1891.

Dow Historical Collection

The early settlers of Midland, Michigan, reaped immediate benefits from the area’s rich timberlands. But the region also held a secret. Deep below the surface lies an ancient ocean, rich in magnesium, chlorine, calcium, bromine, and various other elements. Herbert H. Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company, saw the potential in extracting these raw materials, and his foresight spawned a chemical empire.

As a student at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio, Dow worked out a process for the electrolytic extraction of bromine from brine. He established a short-lived company in Canton, Ohio, to test the process, but soon abandoned it.

Full of ideas but short on cash, Dow arrived in Midland in 1890 and saw a community with an unsustainable future. Numerous brine wells operated in the area, but the extraction process depended on timberlands for cheap fuel and the forests of the area were quickly disappearing. Dow set up shop in a rented barn at the Evans Flour Mill on Main Street and began his electrolytic operations as the Midland Chemical Company. When the company outgrew the flour mill, land was purchased across town on the present site of Dow Chemical.

In 1897, after several years of trial and error, Dow developed the technologies and secured the funding to establish the Dow Chemical Company. During the early years the primary activity of this company was manufacturing bleach from raw materials supplied by the Midland Chemical Company.

Discovering new products and innovative ways to use them was a passion for Herbert Dow, and his company grew year after year. His knowledge of chemical synthesis became a vital military asset during World War I when key German imports were cut off. Dow Chemical began producing synthetic indigo dyes, synthetic phenols for explosives, and aspirin, as well as huge quantities of calcium chloride, Epsom Salts, magnesium products, and insecticides.

Today Dow Chemical is one of the largest diversified chemical companies in the world with annual sales in excess of $50 billion. The secret, it seems, is out.

The Evans Flour Mill, ca. 1891

Dow Evans Flour Mill, ca. 1891

Evans Flour Mill, ca. 1891

Dow Historical Collection

The Evans Flour Mill was the site of the Midland Chemical Company, Dow’s first company in Midland. The tower seen in the photograph on the previous page houses the brine well that supplied the raw material Dow needed to produce bromine. He did so by means of electrolysis, which as far as Dow knew had never before been achieved on a commercial scale. The operation, however, was too small for his liking, so in May 1892 the Midland Chemical Company was reorganized, and operations were moved to the present site of Dow’s Michigan Division.

Herbert H. Dow Notebook #3, January–October 1889

From the time he was in college, Herbert Dow recorded most of his thoughts and ideas in small pocket notebooks. Forty-eight notebooks still survive and are housed in the CHF archives. Notebook #3 was kept by Dow during the period immediately after he graduated from the Case School of Applied Science. It contains ideas and sketches for various mechanical devices and processes, most notably his early work on extracting bromine.

Workforce of the Midland Chemical Company, ca. 1894

The small staff of the Midland Chemical Company included (left to right) Julius Stark, Julius Burrow, Roscoe Dunham, Alfred Burrow, and Henry S. Cooper, a former mayor of Midland. The company produced bromine almost exclusively, until Dow decided to make bleach from the chlorine resulting as a by-product of the bromine process. Dow’s fellow investors were not very supportive of this activity, especially after he blew up a large electrolytic plant while testing his new operations. Julius Burrow (pictured above with bicycle) was injured in the explosion, and his partners insisted he cease those operations. Dow refused to abandon the idea and perfected the process on his own. Years later the process emerged as the primary activity of the Dow Chemical Company.

Herbert H. Dow Membership Card to the League of American Wheelmen, 1896

Nineteenth-century bicyclists, referred to as “wheelmen,” faced unending challenges from rutted roads of gravel and dirt, as well as antagonistic horsemen and pedestrians. In an effort to improve riding conditions, thousands of cyclists from across the United States joined the League of American Wheelmen to advocate for paved roads. By 1898 the League had more than 102,000 members, including the Wright Brothers and John D. Rockefeller. Dow himself was an avid wheelman and league member. One of his earliest side ventures was the Midland Anti-Leak Company that produced a puncture-sealing compound for bicycle tires.

An Unidentified Man Handles Calcium Chloride Flakes on Seven-Mile Road, 2 June 1922

Calcium chloride is a versatile chemical that is still widely used today for a variety of industrial purposes. In this image the contents of a 100-pound bag of Dow Calcium Chloride Flakes are being used to control dust on Seven-Mile Road in Michigan. Unpaved surfaces treated with calcium chloride remain compacted, and as the chemical penetrates the surface, it stabilizes the entire road base by minimizing frost damage, erosion, and overall wear.

Herbert H. Dow, 1897

A portrait of Dow taken the year he founded the Dow Chemical Company. Believing that his youthful appearance would not be welcomed by potential investors and customers, he wore a large handlebar mustache to appear older.






The Dow Historical Collection was donated to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, now the Science History Institute, in 2008 by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation.