A Story. About What? Well, You Wouldn't Want Us to Spoil the Surprise, Would You?


A freelance writer, for six years Kimit A. Muston wrote a weekly column for the Los Angeles Daily News and has been published by the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oklahoma Oklahomian, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a regular contributor to the web site Daily Kos and Politico.com, and now lives in Indiana.

I will be celebrating the fourth of July this year. But I will also be celebrating the fifth of July, because on the fifth of July in 1883 the U.S. government granted patent #278967 for a formula of something that had never existed in the world before. The patent was granted for an invention that every one reading this has probably used at least once in the past year, and if you haven’t used it in the past year, you really ought to. It was the brainchild of an energetic young marketing genius with some help from his brother, and the invention made them both rich – even though their original idea was pretty much a bust.

This story begins with a pharmacist in London named Gustave Mellin. Like many other pharmacists of his day, Gustave was looking for a magic elixir that would make him rich. In the second half of the nineteenth century, all over Europe and America, ambitious young men were throwing chemicals into pots and kettles and selling the resultant concoctions to unsuspecting guinea pigs (aka customers). Some of these latter day alchemists killed people. A few got very rich.

It was an Atlanta pharmacist, Dr. John Pemberton, who cooked up Coke-a-Cola in his back yard in 1886. And Caleb Bradham of New Bern, North Carolina invented Pepsi Cola in his pharmacy during the summer of 1893. But the guiding light for Gustave Mellin was Henri Nestle, a Swiss citizen who in 1867, made his reputation and his fortune by saving a premature infant with his own recipe of powdered milk and ground up wheat.

Gustav’s Mellin’s version of Nestle’s formula, which he inventively called "Mellin’s Food", would eventually become Nestle’s principle competitor. And the success of Mellin attracted the attention of a young, dashing, handsome, ambitious and driven Englishman from the tiny village of Ruardean, in Gloucestershire. James Horlick began as an apprentice at the feet of the master, and what he learned from Mellin was that marketing was at least as important as the invention itself. In 1873 James quit his job working for Gustav Mellin and immigrated to America, to join his younger brother William in Chicago. And James took with him a little formula he had been working on.

In 1860, for the last time in history, the value of American agricultural goods was greater than the products from her factories. And amazingly this shift happened at same time that American farms were becoming the breadbasket of the world. Chief among this new American bounty of grains flooding the world markets was wheat and rye. Nestle’s and Mellin's formulas were based on the idea of releasing the proteins trapped in those very grains. And that is why James and William Horlick had emigrated to America.

What William and James needed was a community with cheap property values, a ready supply of clean water, an already industrialized work force, easy access to their raw materials (wheat and rye) and to shipping routes. They found just what they were looking 60 miles North of Chicago, where the Root River enters Lake Michigan, in Racine, Wisconsin.

The city had been incorporated in 1848 with a population of 3,000, and by 1870 was approaching 30,000 people, filling up with Danes, Czechs, Swedes and Norwegians. The foundation of the economy was the town’s harbor and rail connections. Early on Fanning Mills built heavy farm equipment here, including machines to separate the wheat and barley from its chaff, the slurry of which is called a malt. That created a pool of trained factory workers which attracted Jerome Case who built his heavy equipment factory there, and S.C. Johnson who established his cleaning products factory in Racine. And it was here in 1877, that the Horlick brothers opened their single story factory in town, making "Horlick's Infant & Invalids Food" and got ready for success to beat down their door.

It took awhile and it came from an unexpected market. The publicity breakthrough came in 1909 when explorers Robert Peary, Amundsen and Scott all three pick Horlik’s product to supply protein for their assaults on the North and South Poles. Overnight Horlick's food was in the forefront of the "health food" craze. And it remains a popular health food item to this day. But that was not the advancement that changed human life.

It’s unclear who did it first, but my bet is it was a new player on the stage. They were called "soda jerks", because in the early years they were required to jerk on the levers to dispense the carbonated water that was the main ingrediant of their trade. I doubt that it was an employee of Horlick who first made the discovery, else their name would have been enshrined in company legend. Besides, after all, it was a small step and may have been taken in several places at about about the same time.

Remember the Horlick formula was a concoction of ground wheat, barley malt and powdered milk, and mixed with water or fresh milk. And then somebody added ice cream, and thus was born the malted milk shake.

I doubt that most people realize that everything "malted" can only be made under license from Horlick’s. Malted is a flavor that is owned. It was invented. It does not appear anywhere in nature. It started out as a chemical byproduct of the mechanical processing of grains (the slurry or malt), then was marketed as baby food, then it became a health food before it gave soda jerks something to serve with the ice cream Sundaes they had invented, because the carbonated water they used in all their previous inventions was considered too racy a drink to be served on the Lord's day. That was why the ice cream sundea had been invented in the first place. And in defiance of social conservatives you could now have a sundae on Sunday, or a malted.

And surely, in the eyes of the Lord, the invention of the cold, frothy and thick Malted Milk Shake will count on the plus side for humanity come the judgement day. It is a good thing.

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