Persistence Pays

On the tombstone is inscribed, “I tried and failed. I tried again and succeeded.” It marks the grave of Gail Borden, Jr., who lived from 1801-1874. He was a surveyor, teacher, farmer, rancher, soldier, city clerk, tax collector and the newspaper publisher who coined the phrase, “Remember the Alamo.” He also was a city alderman, church deacon, missionary, temperance society officer and served as a trustee of the Texas Baptist Education Society, which founded Baylor University.
Borden is most remembered, however, as an inventor in the food industry. It was a career he began in the 1840s, and it initially caused financial disaster. He wanted to invent a way to condense food so that it would stay edible for a long time. He said, “I want to put a potato in a pillbox, a pumpkin in a tablespoon and a watermelon in a saucer.” At every opportunity, he would experiment on guests at his home by serving concentrated soups and foods. During the 1850 California Gold Rush, Borden invented a dehydrated meat biscuit. For seven years, he tried to market his invention on a worldwide scale, but the project left him penniless and deeply in debt.
And then on a boat trip home from England, he got “the idea.” It was an idea born out of tragedy. Borden witnessed children die as a result of drinking contaminated milk on the boat. That’s when he vowed to dedicate the remainder of his life to finding a way to make milk safe for human consumption.
Through his experiments with the meat biscuits and other products, he knew food could be kept fresh over long periods of time if moisture was reduced. He put a gallon of milk in a kettle and boiled off the water. The experiment failed because the resulting product had an unpleasant, burnt taste. Then while visiting a Shaker colony, he saw maple sugar condensed in a vacuum-sealed pan.
He realized that if he could create a vacuum in his milk-condensation process, less heat would be needed to evaporate the milk, which is about 87% water. It worked. The burnt taste was reduced and eventually eliminated. In 1853 he sought a patent on his process, but it was 1856 before he received American and British rights. He then dropped the meat biscuit to devote himself fulltime to condensing milk. He opened a factory in Connecticut in 1856. It failed. He tried again in 1857. It failed again.
And then on a train ride, Borden shared his story with a stranger who happened to be a New York financier. The man liked what Borden was doing and offered to back him. Borden opened another factory in Connecticut in 1858 and sold 500 pounds of condensed milk to the U.S. Army.
Just as the initial idea for condensed milk sprang from tragedy aboard the boat from England, the success of Borden’s company was assured when demand for his product intensified during the tragic American Civil War. Sales grew rapidly. Borden opened another factory in Connecticut, two in New York and one in Illinois. He also licensed manufacturers in Pennsylvania and Maine. Meanwhile, Borden was inventing methods for condensing various fruit juices, coffee and beef extract.
Borden’s “never give up” attitude led to a process that met a need, to the founding of a multi-billion dollar company and to the shaping of today’s dairy industry. It also led to such Icons as Borden Milk’s “spokesanimal” Elsie the Cow and to such popular products as Elmer’s Glue. Quite frequently, persistence pays.
Carl Mays, author of over a dozen books and speaker at over 2500 events, can be contacted at or 865-436-7478. His books, including “A Strategy For Winning,” “People of Passion,” “Anatomy Of A Leader” and “Are We Communicating Yet?” are available in stores, at, and on 

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