Few famous Americans enjoy a status as mythic as that of George Washington Carver, a man whose life as a botanist, agronomist, chemist and inventor earned him a lasting place in the history books. Nicknamed the "Black Leonardo" by TIME Magazine in 1941, Carver is one of the most revered figures in early 20th century African-American history, and his work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama is considered instrumental in changing Southern approaches to agriculture [source: TIME].
In 1896, Carver accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington to lead the Agriculture Department at the recently formed Tuskegee Institute, where he would remain -- teaching and conducting laboratory work -- for most of his life [source: American Heritage]. At Tuskegee, Carver wore several hats, serving as a teacher, testing crop varieties and fertilizers, writing bulletins for farmers and managing research at his experiment station.
Carver recognized that widespread monoculture of cotton among Southern farmers was stripping the soil of nutrients, leading to erosion and leaving black farmers destitute [source: Indiana.edu]. He therefore devoted much of his energy to studying the use of natural fertilizers and nutrient-restoring techniques, like crop rotation, as well as promoting alternatives to cotton, like sweet potatoes and peanuts.
At his experiment station, Carver worked to develop new uses for those alternative crops. Hoping to spark an increased demand for them, he created products as varied as soaps and cosmetics to adhesives, greases and paints. Although Carver is credited with inventing hundreds of new uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts, few of his inventions ever caught on commercially, and he didn't file patents for the vast majority of his work. It was only after his teaching load greatly diminished in the 1920s that Carver made a serious effort to market any of his inventions, forming the Carver Products Company with several Atlanta businessmen. However, the company only ended up patenting three inventions -- two for paint and one for cosmetics -- the only patents in Carver's name [source: Abrams].
Over time, countless books (mostly written for kids) have helped to spread the legend of Carver's accomplishments, while most of his actual inventions have drifted into obscurity.
George Washington Carver and the Chemurgy Movement
Since his death in 1943, George Washington Carver has been dubbed "the father of chemurgy" (more commonly known as biochemical engineering today), a type of chemistry that takes agricultural raw materials and converts them into nonfood industrial and consumer products. The word was coined in the 1930s, soon after Carver's rise to national and international fame.
Carver's interest in chemurgy was driven heavily by his desire to identify new uses for noncotton Southern crops. Despite less-than-ideal conditions, cotton was firmly positioned as the primary cash crop in the South, and Carver recognized that the best way to stoke demand for other crops, like peanuts and sweet potatoes, would be to promote new uses for them.
At the Tuskegee Institute, Carver cobbled together a laboratory from found objects and whatever was at hand. "I went to the trash pile at Tuskegee Institute and started my laboratory with bottles, old fruit jars and any other thing I found I could use," he later recalled [source: McMurry].
In the Tuskegee area, Carver collected different types of clays and extracted the pigments from them to produce several types of house paints [source: National Park Service]. At his experiment station, he also produced several different types of paper, a synthetic marble made of wood shavings, a type of road paving made from cotton, and an array of adhesives, greases, plastics, soaps and cosmetics [source: McMurry].
Even in his day, Carver recognized the limits of petroleum and the value of producing industrial products from renewable resources. "I believe the Great Creator has put oil and ores on this earth to give us a breathing spell," Carver is widely quoted as having said. "As we exhaust them, we must fall back on our farms, which is God's true storehouse and can never be exhausted. For we can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow" [source: African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center].
Carver and the Peanut
No plant captured Carver's imagination quite as much as the peanut, and his legendary 1921 appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee earned him the nickname "The Peanut Man" [source: American Heritage]. Accounts vary widely as to how many different uses Carver actually developed for the peanut and how original his discoveries actually were.
At Tuskegee, Carver published a bulletin titled "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption" to promote various uses and recipes for peanuts. He later claimed to have a mental catalogue of more than 300 uses of peanuts (Carver didn't believe in keeping written lists). However, as historian Barry Mackintosh noted in a 1977 article, many of Carver's peanut uses were unoriginal, and peanut production had already been well established in the South before Carver took up the cause. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had detailed the plant's potential value in a comprehensive bulletin in 1896 [source: American Heritage].
Carver compiled dozens of peanut recipes and different uses for the plant, including cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics, and he even claimed to have developed a type of peanut nitroglycerine. One of the recipes that Carver was proudest of was peanut milk, a nutritious and inexpensive alternative to dairy milk that he believed had "unlimited possibilities." However, an Englishman had already patented a similar peanut milk process in 1917 [source: Abrams].
In 1922, Carver developed a medication called Penol, which was an emulsion of peanuts creosote (a liquid distilled from wood tar). The product was supposed to cure respiratory disorders, but was later proven to be ineffective [source: Abrams]. Although many of the uses and applications for peanuts that Carver championed were untraditional, peanuts continued to be sold and used almost entirely as foodstuffs [source: American Heritage].
Carver and the Sweet Potato
Of course, the peanut wasn't the only plant that Carver spent time tinkering with in his experiment station; he is also well known for his work with the sweet potato. During his 1921 presentation on peanuts, Carver told the Ways and Means Committee there were 107 different sweet potato products at that time. Some of the notable uses for sweet potatoes that Carver came up with included vinegar, molasses, postage stamp glue, a synthetic rubber and ink [source: Indiana.edu].
Like peanuts, Carver encouraged Southern farmers to produce sweet potatoes because they performed well in the region and provided a cheap source of nutrition. "Here in the South, there are but few if any farm crops that can be depended upon one year with another for satisfactory yields, as is true of the sweet potato," Carver wrote in his 1936 bulletin, "How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing Them for the Table."
"It is also true that most of our southern soils produce potatoes superior in quality," he wrote, "attractive in appearance and satisfactory in yields, as any other section of the country" [source: Aggie Horticulture].
Carver's 1936 bulletin offers recipes and instructions for creating foods and household products as varied as sweet potato starch, sugar, donuts and croquettes. The George Washington Carver Museum also lists 14 wood fillers, 73 dyes and five library pastes that Carver developed from sweet potatoes [source: Iowa State University].
During the wheat shortage of 1918, Carver experimented with making flour from dried sweet potatoes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture brought him to Washington, D.C., to discuss the feasibility of producing large quantities of sweet potato flour, and plans were put in place to conduct some large-scale experiments. But when the war ended, so did the wheat shortage, and demand for alternative sources of flour faded [source: Abrams].
Carver's Other Inventions
Carver is best known for promoting wide-ranging uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes, but he tinkered with and developed new uses for virtually anything at hand. For example, on the ground beneath his feet he saw more than just fertile soil; he also saw potential in the rich color of the Alabama clay. Carver extracted pigments from those native red clays, producing natural and inexpensive paints. He shared instructions for making paint from local clays in his extension bulletins, hoping that Southern farmers would use them to help beautify their homes. From native clays, Carver also developed wood stains, face powder and ceramics, according to a 1959 list compiled by the George Washington Carver Museum [source: Iowa State University].
Another crop that interested Carver, perhaps from his days studying at the Iowa State Agricultural College, was the soybean, and his work with the bean foreshadowed the many ways that soy is used in the marketplace today. Carver reportedly produced nondairy cheeses, several baking flours and a collection of other foods from soy.
While much of Carver's work was devoted to promoting alternatives to cotton for Southern farmers, he didn't completely dismiss the plant. At Tuskegee, he experimented with different varieties of cotton and issued bulletins instructing farmers on crop rotation to rejuvenate cotton fields. He also developed cotton fiber for rope, twine and paper, and he even made a road-paving surface from cotton stalks [source: Iowa State University]. A runway at Fort McClellan, Ala., was paved with a cotton surface in 1935, but it's unknown whether Carver deserves credit for that [source: McMurry].
Indeed, few things missed Carver's gaze, as he is credited with making a range of products as varied as concrete reinforcing built from sawdust and wood shavings, synthetic marble and vegetable dyes.
Want to learn even more about George Washington Carver? Read on for lots more information on the man and his inventions.
- Abrams, Dennis. "George Washington Carver: Scientist and Educator." Chelsea House Publications. Jan. 31, 2008.
- African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center. "George Washington Carver: Chemurgy." Nov. 19, 2007. (Jan. 5, 2011)http://www.blackiowa.org/exhibits/virtual-tour/george-washington-carver/4/
- Carver, George Washington. "How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing Them for the Table." Bulletin No. 38. November 1936. (Dec. 31, 2010.)http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/publications/guides/carver_sweetpotatoes.html
- Indiana University. "George Washington Carver (1861 - 1943)." (Dec. 30, 2010)http://www.indiana.edu/~pbsei/GWC.html
- Iowa State University. "Further information on George Washington Carver's Research: The Peanut and the Sweet Potato." 1925. (Dec. 31, 2010)http://www.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/gwc/furtherresearch.html
- Mackintosh, Barry. "George Washington Carver and the Peanut." American Heritage Magazine. August 1977. (Dec. 30, 2010)http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1977/5/1977_5_66.shtml
- McMurry, Linda. "George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol." Oxford University Press. June 16, 1982.
- National Park Service. "American Visionaries: George Washington Carver." (Dec. 31, 2010)http://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/tuskegee/gwcarts.htm
- TIME Magazine. "Art: Black Leonardo." Nov. 24, 1941. (Dec. 30, 2010)http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,801330,00.html