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We Called it MAG-nificent

We Called it MAG-nificent: Dow Chemical and Magnesium, 1916-1998

E. N. Brandt
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    We Called it MAG-nificent
    Book Description:

    During World War I, in 1916, Herbert Dow, founder of The Dow Chemical Company, received news of "star shells," weapons that glowed eerily as they descended over the trenches of the enemy, making them easier to attack. The critical component in these flares was magnesium, a metal that was suddenly in great demand. Dow, along with a half-dozen other U.S. firms, swiftly began manufacturing magnesium, but by 1927 Dow was the only U.S. company still in the business. Dow's key innovation was a method of extracting the metal from seawater, an engineering accomplishment finally achieved at Freeport, Texas, only eleven months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Dow was the principal supplier of magnesium for U.S. and British planes during World War II, a distinction that ironically yielded an indictment from the U.S. government on monopoly charges. The company eventually became the world's largest manufacturer of magnesium until 1990, when the Chinese entered the market and offered the metal at rock-bottom prices. Dow quietly ended its production of magnesium in 1998. Brandt's history is an engaging look at Dow's eighty-three-year romance with this remarkable metal.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-363-0
    Subjects: General Science, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. 1 Star Shells
    (pp. 1-12)

    While he was pondering what he read in his newspaper, one day during the grim early days of World War I, before the United States entered that conflict, Herbert Dow hatched out an idea. Dow, founder of The Dow Chemical Company, had a new idea just about every day, so that wasn’t unusual, but this idea was special, and it was to play a major role in the life of his company for the next eighty-three years.

    Magnesium metal was suddenly and unexpectedly in heavy demand because of the war, the newspaper said. A new kind of war was going...

  4. 2 Dowmetal Pistons and the Indy 500
    (pp. 13-26)

    If he was in the magnesium business to stay, Herbert Dow had to develop some large-volume uses for the metal quickly, or he could forget about it. That much he recognized clearly at the end of World War I. He and Barstow looked at many possibilities, and debated until late in the day how to crash the big time with magnesium. Selling the metal to the big automakers, the biggest user of metals, was not going to work, they soon discovered, unless they could sell it at a price competitive with that of aluminum, its principal rival as a light...

  5. 3 Willard and the Gondolas
    (pp. 27-36)

    In November of 1930, Herbert Dow died and was succeeded at the helm of the Dow Company by his eldest son, Willard, whom he had been grooming for the job since his graduation from the University of Michigan, eleven years before. Willard too had great faith in the future of magnesium, and development of the metal by the Dow Company continued under Willard without missing a beat. The Dowmetal piston campaign had acquainted the American public with the metal in a general way, but the ultimate failure of that venture had left the company, and Willard, with the same old...

  6. 4 Dow Goes Down to the Sea
    (pp. 37-48)

    It was one of the engineering marvels of the age, audacious in concept and majestic in execution. For the first time in history, man was going to extract a basic metal from seawater.

    Herbert Dow recognized from the beginning of his work that the brine underlying his plant at Midland, the key raw material for his chemical works, was the residue of ancient seas, and that if he could extract magnesium metal from the brines, as he had been doing since 1916, he was only a step away, although it was a giant step, from taking it from seawater.


  7. 5 How to Make Magnesium out of Seawater
    (pp. 49-54)

    If you ever have a hankering to extract a little magnesium from seawater—a ton perhaps, with which to make yourself an airplane—here’s how to do it. There are several methods to produce magnesium, all of which have rather odd, esoteric kinds of names—the Hansgirg process, the Pidgeon process, the MEL process—but by far the most romantic way to make magnesium is to take it out of seawater by the Dow Seawater Process, and we’re going to try to explain it to you.

    The first thing you need is an ocean. You will need 800 tons of...

  8. 6 Two-Faced Government
    (pp. 55-70)

    The timing of the Dow magnesium-from-seawater plant was little short of genius, coming as it did about eleven months before Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war, just in time for the sudden overwhelming national need for magnesium that would be occasioned by the war. It was going badly in Europe in those early days; France had fallen in May of 1940, and the main question occupying much of the Western world’s attention in early 1941 was whether, or when, Hitler would invade Great Britain across the English Channel. With the advent of war, the demand for magnesium changed rapidly...

  9. 7 The Hanawalt Era
    (pp. 71-80)

    The Truman Committee hearings brought home to Willard Dow that magnesium was a metal, not a chemical, and more importantly, that it should be treated differently than a chemical. So in 1946, when the war was over, he proceeded to establish a separate and independent Magnesium Department, still part of the Dow Company but with its own organization and leadership.

    Up to this time, magnesium had been treated much like any other chemical. After all, it was derived from magnesium chloride, a component of the Michigan brines, like a dozen other chemicals.

    Now it was organized as a separate business....

  10. 8 The Hazards of Coastal Texas
    (pp. 81-90)

    In 1940, Leo A. Curtis became one of the first of the Michigan boys with experience in magnesium to be sent down to Texas to help them make magnesium in Dow’s big new plant. He had grown up on the Rio Grande River, in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo area, so it was something of a homecoming for him, and he became one of the first superintendents of the new magnesium plant when he was only twenty-four years old.¹

    He recalled his first visit to the town site that became Lake Jackson. “When Dutch Beutel announced where Lake Jackson was going to...

  11. 9 Hot Stuff
    (pp. 91-104)

    Extracting magnesium from seawater is very, very hot work, and very dangerous work. Magnesium metal melts at 651 degrees Centigrade, 1204 degrees Fahrenheit, and the magnesium cells in the Texas plant operated at 700 degrees Centigrade, or 1292 Fahrenheit. The molten magnesium coming up out of the cells was about 50 degrees above its melting point. It was very hot stuff.

    “The hazards to people were extreme—extremes of temperature and the danger of electric shock among them,” Bill Rollwage said. “Mag itself is terribly dangerous in the molten state. In these circumstances, making it was a real accomplishment.”¹


  12. 10 Mag Mountain
    (pp. 105-110)

    One of the more critical problems in extracting magnesium from seawater is that while you’re making magnesium you’re also simultaneously producing a certain amount of gunk that is called “sludge,” or slag, a waste material that you have to get rid of. Lee Roy Cervenka said that in the early days, i.e., the 1940s, they produced about a pound of sludge in the cells for every 10 pounds of magnesium. Over time, as they worked on this problem, trying to produce more magnesium and less sludge, they worked this ratio down to a tenth of a pound of sludge for...

  13. 11 The Nineteen-Seventies
    (pp. 111-120)

    Magnesium enjoyed one of its all too rare and all too brief periods of prosperity and progress in the 1970s, surely a time to remember. The key to this prosperity was price, specifically the sales price of magnesium. Under the price controls imposed by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the price of magnesium had been frozen at 35 cents per pound. In the spring of 1973, when the freeze expired, George B. Cobel, appointed as the new business manager for magnesium, decided that the metal was then seriously underpriced, and in short supply as well, and he engineered a series...

  14. 12 Havoc in the Marketplace
    (pp. 121-130)

    As the Cold War tailed off around 1990, the major market forces in respect to magnesium began to shift, imperceptibly but rapidly, around the whole world, and especially in Russia and China. It was truly a paradigm shift. Cliff Wilson, who had followed the world’s magnesium markets closely during a career of more than forty years in the metal, was a close observer of what followed.

    “With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russian [magnesium] metal started coming into the Western markets, where it had not been seen before,” he said.¹ “That was one of the first things that happened....

  15. 13 A Non-Event
    (pp. 131-138)

    If ever there was a banner year for Dow magnesium, it was 1991. That was a wowser of a year. Dow then had the capacity to produce 109,000 tons of it a year, 35 percent of the world’s entire output, and was, as it had been for some time, the world’s single largest producer of the metal. In 1990 it had actually produced 90,000 tons of magnesium metal, a full third of the world’s production that year.

    The year 1991 was also the 75th year of the company’s protracted adventure in magnesium—a diamond jubilee, no less—and that anniversary...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 139-148)
  17. Sources and Acknowledgments
    (pp. 149-154)
  18. Index
    (pp. 155-160)