Ford in his research lab

Beans for Bombers: Ford, War, and the Agriculture Sector

Image: Henry Ford in his research lab.

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Ford and Carver

“Dr. Carver and Mr. Ford – Greenfield Village, Michigan,” Photograph, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Henry Ford had always been interested in the the role of agriculture and how the sector could lend itself to Detroit’s auto industry. He found a kindred spirit in George Washington Carver, an African American scientist who experimented with agricultural raw material sources for industrial products. Having visited each other several times, Ford and Carver formed a deep friendship.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ford worked with Carver, his researchers, and the agriculture industry to produce new industrial products from agricultural sources, especially soy. Ford believed that the many practical uses of soybeans could play an important role in lifting America out of the Depression. His demand for soybeans also created a new market for farmers, offering them a new source of income.  From the late 1930s until his death in 1947, Ford was recognized as a major soybean pioneer, making outstanding achievements during his declining years.

By 1942, Ford Motor Co. was mandated by the federal government to slow the production of automobiles and focus on producing supplies and materials for the war, such as materials for bombers, jeeps, tanks and other vehicles. Believing that war brought an opportunity for Americans to utilize natural resources in a new way, Carver introduced Ford and his researchers to many different new products and recipes that could be produced out of agriculture. Carver offered up soybean and weeds sandwiches, which, though fairly bland, were still surprisingly edible. Carver’s other ideas included axel grease, wood stain, ice cream, and dandruff cures made from peanuts; fertilizer made from swamp muck; and roadways made from cotton.

With the idea of finding alternative sources for industrial materials in mind, Ford’s laboratories developed new materials including plastics for airplanes, synthetic rubber, paint, and “wool” from soybeans. He had his laboratories concentrating on the use of plastics for bombers, based on the knowledge gained from automotive experiments, since plastic weighs less than the traditional aluminum. Although the synthetic rubber did not progress as much in the laboratories, the plant-built “wool” appeared to be comparable with natural wool.  The material, intending for use in upholstery fabrics, was allegedly the first to be produced from vegetable protein.  After years of research, the soy-based wool served many purposes, supplementing the country’s wool crop, and helped meet the war-time demand for the material.

By working on projects such as conservation, waste elimination, recycling, and alternative, agricultural sourcing for industrial products, Carver and Ford set forth a legacy that continues today.

  • Aoyagi, Akiko and Shurtleff, William, Henry Ford and His Researchers – History of Their Work with Soybeans, Soyfoods, and Chemurgy (1928-2011): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook (Lafayette, CA: Soyinfo Center, 2011), 7-10.
  • “Soy Bean ‘Wool’, Plastic Parts For Planes, New Synthetic Rubber Uses Keep Ford Research Men Busy,” Wall Street Journal, 1942, 11.
  • “Dr. Carver, Science Wizard, Finds Good in Everything,” Detroit News, July 22, 1942.
  • Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr.The Green Vision of Henry Ford and George Washington Carver: Two Collaborators in the Cause of Clean Industry (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013), 5-9; 163-170.

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