Henry Ford was famous for promoting his game-changing Model T automobile, telling consumers they could have the car in any color, as long as it was black. There was another game-changing innovation for which he was responsible. Like the car that made him famous, it, too, was available only in black.
The Model T car made Henry Ford a household name and a very wealthy man. By 1919, the Ford Motor Company was turning out one million cars each year. Each vehicle required the use of about 100 board feet of wood. Ford wanted to keep costs down and maintain control over the production supplies, so he went shopping for some timberland to meet his company’s needs. Fortunately, he had a real estate agent in his family. His cousin was married to realtor Edward G. Kingston, who helped Ford locate and acquire some prime timberland in Iron Mountain, Michigan.
Ford built a sawmill on his new property and cut the lumber there before shipping it to Detroit for assembly into the vehicles. While this dramatically reduced the cost of the wood parts, it opened Ford’s eyes to the amount of waste generated in the production of the lumber. Between the cast-off branches, leftover pieces, and all the sawdust, a significant portion of each felled tree ended up being wasted. This troubled the frugal and resourceful entrepreneur.
Other than making money, Ford really loved spending time in nature. He loved to go on camping trips, and his visits to Iron Mountain gave him ample opportunity to make use of the majestic camping sites of Michigan. Among the friends who camped with him were Thomas Edison and cousin-in-law Edward Kingsford. It was during one of those camping trips that Ford came up with an idea that would address what to do with all that wasted lumber while also solving a problem that had plagued campers since the dawn of time.
Every camper has experienced the difficulty of starting a campfire. Finding enough dry kindling and getting the fire hot enough to serve its purpose is always a challenge. Ford’s thoughts went to all that wood that was being thrown away and decided to try to make good use of it. He took the scraps and sawdust and pressed them together into small clumps, using cornstarch and tar to hold it all together. These little clumps easily caught fire and burned hot enough that they could be used all by themselves to generate enough heat to cook a meal.
Delighted with his invention, Ford named them “charcoal briquets.” Convinced the public would find them useful, as well, he established a briquet manufacturing plant next to the sawmill. He sold the briquets in picnic packs and used them as part of the Ford Motor Company’s promotions of exploring the great outdoors while behind the wheel of a Ford automobile.
In 1951, Ford sold the charcoal briquet division. The product was renamed Kingsford Charcoal in honor of Edward Kingsford, the man who helped Ford acquire the timberland where the idea was born. Today, Kingsford Charcoal is still made in America using 100% American materials, converting more than one million tons of wood waste into useful products each year.
The next time you fire up your charcoal grill and see your family line up at the picnic table, filling their plates, pause and give a moment of thanks. If it hadn’t been for the man who transformed automobile manufacturing, your family wouldn’t be filling their plates with the efficiency of a fine-turned assembly line.
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