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No. 3049:
Charcoal Briquettes

by Andrew Boyd

Today, we barbeque. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

Cooking over a campfire can be fun but challenging. Burning wood provides plenty of heat, but it also creates smoke. Smoke's not just a nuisance. It contains a variety of substances you'd be better off not breathing.

A billycan on a campfire. Photo Credit: Johan Larsson/Wikimedia Commons

That's because wood is made up of all sorts of compounds. But locked inside is one particular element that's plentiful and good at generating heat: carbon. Burn that carbon and all you get is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide's a greenhouse gas, and that's another story. But it's odorless and harmless to breathe. So for activities like cooking it's ideal. And it raises the question. Is it possible to unlock the carbon trapped in the wood, separating it from the unhealthy mixture of compounds that envelop it?

The answer's yes. It's actually quite simple using ancient methods. Take a pile of wood, set it on fire, and cover it with dirt. It takes some skill to do properly. The key is allowing the wood to burn slowly in an oxygen deprived environment, a process that can take weeks. What's left is mostly burnable carbon. We call this lightweight residue charcoal.

Japanese Binchõtan. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While charcoal's been used throughout history, its popularity in modern U.S. households traces its roots to a surprising source. In the summer of 1919 Henry Ford got to thinking about how his cars were made. From the frame to the wheel spokes to the trim, building a Model T took a lot of wood. So during a summer camping trip he invited a cousin-in-law by the name of Edward Kingsford to join him. Ford wanted to cut and mill his own lumber, and he wanted Kingsford's help. Kingsford arranged for the purchase of 313 thousand acres of timberland and set up a saw mill and parts plant. The nearby town that grew up was named after Kingsford.

1919 Ford Model T pickup. Photo Credit: Writegeist/Wikimedia Commons

Ford wondered what he might do with the scrap wood leftover from parts-making. Innovator that he was, Ford approached a chemist at the University of Oregon by the name of Orin Stafford. Stafford had developed a new, faster process for making charcoal. Its one drawback was that it generated charcoal powder, which was hard to work with. Stafford overcame this obstacle by developing a binding agent made of starch, tar, and a little water that allowed him to shape the powder into clumps. In his patent, he called these clumps briquettes.

Ford liked what he saw and added a facility to make charcoal briquettes. Like the Model T itself, the briquettes were a symbol of the future; load a portable grill and a bag of new-fangled charcoal briquettes in your car for a perfect family getaway. Ford sold such picnic kits through his dealers.

Unfortunately, when it came to charcoal briquettes, Ford was ahead of his time. They didn't catch on under his watch. That would have to wait until 1951, when a company bought Ford's charcoal business and convinced supermarkets to carry it under the brand name Kingsford.

Kingsford Original Charcoal. Photo Credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Charcoal Briquette. From the How Things Are Made website: Accessed February 23, 2016.

J. Kominicki. 'On Point: It Wasn't Ford's Idea, But He Bought It.' Detroit Legal News, July 27, 2011. See also: Accessed February 23, 2016.

D. Slater. 'Who Made that Charcoal Briquette?' The New York Times Magazine, September 26, 2014. See also: Accessed February 23, 2016.

Smoke Chemistry. From the website: February 23, 2016.

O. Stafford. Process of Making Charcoal Briquettes and Product Derived Therefrom. Orin F. Stafford, assignee. Patent US 1609097 A. November 30, 1926.

This episode was first aired on February 25, 2016