Magnus Swenson, Inventor and Chemical
By Olaf Hougen (Volume X: Page 152)
The career of Magnus Swenson in engineering, invention, manufacturing, business administration, and public affairs ranks him among the most versatile of American citizens. Unfortunately, Swenson made no attempt to record his achievements. He contributed practically nothing to scientific or engineering periodicals. He had a consuming passion for great achievements in chemical manufacture, production of machinery, in invention, in conserving the waste byproducts of industry, but was not concerned in the least with receiving recognition for his achievements or collecting the applause of future generations, or even of attaining credit and compensation for his enterprises. The sources of information for the material of this article are from personal interviews with Magnus Swenson, with his daughter, Mrs. Mary North, and with his former acquaintances. Through the courtesy of Mrs. North, hundreds of newspaper clippings in her possession were made available, as well as the large files of Swenson's personal correspondence. The government patents and specifications also constituted a reliable source of information. The sources of extant information were by no means exhausted. A complete study was not made of Swenson's correspondence, nor of newspaper files. No doubt there are still extant technical reports in the possession of numerous industrial organizations for which Swenson served as consulting engineer. Neither time nor expense permitted further search into these less accessible sources of information.
The name of Magnus Swenson is a familiar one to members of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, and it is only fitting that STUDIES AND RECORDS should present an account of the man who for several years was president of this association. His work for the association was one of the many hobbies that filled his life in later years, after his scientific and civic work had won him eminence in the social and public life of Wisconsin. An attempt will be made in the following to describe his scientific career, and to estimate the significance of this phase of his many-sided contributions to the life of America.
His story is the familiar, yet ever-fascinating tale of the immigrant lad who came to America starved, penniless, and homeless, and who rose to become a distinguished citizen of his new country. He turned his hand to many tasks, from his early jobs as blacksmith, mechanic, and surveyor, and his scientific contributions as geologist, chemist, engineer, and inventor, to the later positions of honor and responsibility as bank director, regent of the University of Wisconsin, chairman of the commission to build Wisconsin's state capitol, food administrator for the state of Wisconsin, food relief ambassador to the Baltic countries in Europe, and president of a great steamship company.
He was born in Langesand, Norway, April 12, 1854, on the estate of Thorstrand, near the city of Larvik. He left Norway at the age of fourteen, and America was his home until his death in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 29, 1936.
When he was two years of age his mother died. The family then moved to Larvik where the father, Johann Swenson, owned and managed a large factory for the manufacture of rope. There were many advantages in being brought up in Larvik; here the boy had an opportunity to become familiar
with the mechanical skills of a large factory, to mingle with sailors returning from all parts of the world, and to attend the city schools. His father remarried, and as more brothers and sisters came into the world Magnus often found himself an abused and neglected stepchild. Shortly after his fourteenth birthday a second tragedy came into his life. His father's rope factory burned to the ground. The property was without insurance. From that day, Magnus was dependent upon his own resources. It was then that he looked with longing eyes to the land of opportunity, to America, the hope and goal of Europe's poor and oppressed.
The opportunity soon came to take passage on a small sailing vessel, "Victoria," bound for America with a list of sixty passengers. Each passenger carried his own provisions, enough food for a voyage of six weeks. The ship encountered heavy seas and was driven toward the shores of Iceland and then into the regions of drifting ice. At the end of eight weeks the vessel was still far in the Atlantic, the food supply was low, bread was doled out one crust a day, and the daily water supply was restricted to one pint. Starvation and scurvy followed. Twenty-two passengers died. Their bodies were wrapped in sheets, weighted with pig iron ballast, and buried at sea. To escape the misery and sordidness of the deck, Magnus often curled himself for hours at a time in the high crow's nest. On the eleventh week the shores of Labrador came into sight and soon they were in the midst of the codfish banks of Newfoundland. Lines were cast overboard and fresh fish pulled in to stave off the final stages of starvation. It was a crippled ship that sailed slowly up the St. Lawrence River with its saddened voyagers in July 1868. The passengers disembarked at the Canadian immigration station on Anticosti Island. It was here that an unknown Catholic priest brought them food and shelter. An ox was slain for the feast; and then young Magnus, in his eagerness for fresh food, overate, to suffer pangs exceeding those of
starvation. On the following day the "Victoria" with its passengers was towed into Quebec. At that place Magnus hurriedly repacked his wooden chest and hastened by rail to Detroit, to Chicago, and finally to Janesville, Wisconsin.
In Janesville Magnus was welcomed by his maternal uncle, Paul Iverson, who was foreman in the blacksmith shop of the Northwestern Railroad. Magnus was too frail to work; he had been seriously reduced by starvation. For the first year he was allowed to attend the public school of Janesville to learn the English language and to regain his health and. strength. The next year he started work as a blacksmith's helper in the Northwestern shops. Before long he was promoted to mechanic and developed unusual skills in all forms of metal work. One day while he was sharpening tools for a crew of men who were building a bridge across the Rock River, he decided that he too would become an engineer. He was urged by the Reverend Laur. Larsen, president of Luther College, to prepare for the ministry. He was offered a position as foreman of the Northwestern shops in Green Bay at $1,200 a year, though he was only twenty-one years old. But neither persuasion nor temptation could change his purpose, and in 1875 he entered the University of Wisconsin. Having heard that commencement day was in June, he arrived at that time to register, only to learn that he must still wait another three months, for classes did not begin on commencement day.
He matriculated as a freshman in the department of mining and metallurgy, which was a part of the college of engineering. The university was small at that time, with only three hundred and fifty students and twenty instructors. The annual budget was only one hundred thousand dollars, compared with the eight million of today. There was no college of agriculture, and a course in chemical engineering was unknown. Because of his unusual mechanical skill, Swenson was given odd jobs in the university shops.
During his summer vacation in 1878 he earned some extra money by surveying land for the proposed roadbed of the Northwestern Railroad in the Dakotas. Buffaloes still roamed the prairies, and the Indians were still a serious menace to the whites; immigrants were just beginning to open the new land for agriculture. Magnus and his surveying partner, Richard Aishton, started out at a salary of $35 per month. It soon appeared that these two men covered more distance than any other crew. They had been furnished a mule for carrying their transit, level, tools, and stakes. Magnus noted that the mule was strikingly regular in its movements, and that it apparently walked a straight path with an even, steady pace. He took out his surveyor's chain and measured the mule's pace. He found that it hardly varied an inch in a hundred yards. So, instead of measuring distances by chain, the two boys took turns riding the mule and counting its paces as it followed the line of stakes. For their proficiency in laying out track, the two young men had their wages increased to $100 per month. Many years later, when the roadbed was remeasured, the measurements of the mule survey were found to be remarkably accurate. One of the bench marks that had been left in Dakota was a stone monument dedicated to the memory of the pacing mule.
The story of this early survey was not disclosed until fifty years later when Richard Aishton had become president of the Northwestern Railroad and Magnus Swenson was invited to Chicago to attend an anniversary celebration of the railroad.
During the summer of 1879, Swenson helped color maps for the United States Geological Survey under Professor Irving. He also spent part of the summer in mineral identification for the geological survey of Wisconsin. He had learned the recently developed technique of mineral identification by means of the petrographic microscope. This was
a difficult science, involving an understanding of crystallography, the intricate behavior of light in passing through crystals, and a fine sense of color discrimination. Swenson sketched the mineral sections, and with water colors he painted the beautiful polarization colors of minerals as they appear when observed between crossed nicols. These early colored plates are still to be found in the records of the geological survey over Swenson's signature. In later years his artistic abilities found another expression in his hobby of painting.
In his senior year, Swenson's interests turned to analytical chemistry. He was appointed an assistant in quantitative analysis under Professor Willard Daniells at a salary of $125 per year, and chose for the subject of his senior thesis "The Chemical Analysis of Madison Well Waters." This was a dramatic topic in 1880. The germ theory of disease had only lately been advanced by Pasteur and Koch, and had not yet won public acceptance. Madison had no central water supply and no central sewage system. Each family had its own private well and cesspool, and no one connected this situation with the fact that typhoid, scarlet fever, and diphtheria were prevalent in the city.
Swenson found that nearly all the water in the city was polluted by sewage. He analyzed hundreds of samples by methods that are still used in the discovery of organic matter, total ammonia, albuminoid ammonia, nitrites, and chlorides. The presence of any of these substances indicates organic matter coming from direct contamination with sewage. Methods of bacterial examination had not yet been developed. His conclusion was that 96 per cent of the well waters in Madison were unfit to drink. He declared that some Madison well waters were fit only as a liquid fertilizer to add to the soil.
In a public address he brought the issue before the people of Madison, and aroused great public alarm. "Water, water
everywhere, but seldom fit to drink," was headlined in the Madison Democrat. Swenson was prevailed upon by Madison physicians to open a chemical laboratory in the basement of the capitol for the examination of water. In his collection of water samples, he was met by much resistance and indignation. Bricks and bottles were thrown at him, and dogs were allowed to chase him. He was finally obliged to ask for an escort of two policemen while he collected samples. People maintained that liquid from cesspools was purified in passing through the ground. Some of Madison's foremost citizens opposed Swenson's findings with great bitterness. One of them, General Simeon Mills, even tried to trap Swenson with a faked sample, and advised him "to let alone dabbling in a science you cannot understand." "Madison,'' he declared, "would be better off never to have heard of Swenson for the senses of sight and taste are sufficient to prove whether or not water is fit for drinking."
In spite of such woeful ignorance of chemistry among the leading citizens, it was not long before Swenson's agitation took effect, and steps were taken to remedy the situation. Madison acquired a central water supply from deep artesian wells, and private cesspools gave way to a central sewage system. The small laboratory established by Swenson for the analysis of water has been replaced by the State Laboratory of Hygiene, which analyzes yearly over one hundred thousand samples of water, blood, and urine for the citizens of Wisconsin. Swenson graduated in mining and metallurgy with the class of 1880, and was granted special honors for his thesis on the well waters of Madison.
In the same year the college of agriculture was created, with Professor W. A. Henry and Magnus Swenson as its total faculty. Dean Henry appointed Swenson as his only colleague, with the title of research assistant, and a salary of twelve hundred dollars, or two hundred dollars more than his own. They had only two students the first year, but
their work was to lay the foundation for agricultural education and research in Wisconsin. They were especially fortunate in their selection of the first research project. Sugar was at that time an expensive commodity and was chiefly imported from Cuba. Sorghum cane had been introduced from China, and had been acclimated to the soil of Wisconsin. Swenson proposed that experiments be carried on with the extraction of sugar from sorghum cane. Professor Henry succeeded in persuading the legislature to grant four thousand dollars for these experiments.
An experimental refinery was built on the shores of Lake Mendota, and it was equipped with a ten-horse-power boiler, a horizontal roller mill for crushing the cane, one steam-heated defecator, two galvanized sheet rim evaporators, a thirty-inch vacuum pan, a pump for circulating water to the evaporator, and a centrifuge 1 1-4 feet in diameter by 4 inches deep. Swenson experimented carefully, yet with prodigious results. Within the first year he had discovered the delicate adjustments in cultivation that were necessary for good yields of sugar. In the flowering season the cane contained 3 per cent sugar, but when the seed had matured, the sugar content had increased to 12.7 per cent. Cane damaged by storm or exposed to rain after cutting, or stored for long after cutting, rapidly decreased in its sugar content. Swenson also noted that a better quality of sugar was obtained in vacuum evaporation, not allowing the temperature to exceed 170¼ Fahrenheit.
Even so, Swenson was not satisfied with the results. Only 60 per cent of the sugar was extracted from the cane. He had read that in France a diffusion method was used which yielded as much as 94 per cent of the sugar from beets. He went to work applying the French method on sorghum cane. These experiments were conducted on a large scale, using 23,520 pounds of stalks and handling 13,660 pounds of juice in one season. At the same time he made note of the
possible by-products of the sugar industry. The best seed could be used for replanting and the remainder for cattle feed; the scum was high in lime and nitrogen, and could be returned to the soil. He also anticipated the lime sucrate method of sugar separation, whereby the unrefined sugar could be sent to distant refineries without danger of decomposition.
In these early experiments Swenson displayed the desirable qualifications of the scientific experimenter. He carried the process through from beginning to end, considering every detail and problem, whether it came under his specialty or not. He was familiar with cultivation, climate, rainfall, horticulture, harvesting, as well as the design, erection, and operation of machinery. He was alert and up-to-date in adopting the French method of diffusion, and in employing vacuum evaporation at low temperatures. Swenson's scientific interests were universal; his interest extended to every phase of the problem regardless of what were his major interests in the university. Though he had been trained as a mining engineer at the university, he extended his interests to botany and horticulture when the problem demanded it. In his sugar experiments Swenson had shown himself as a competent chemical engineer, twenty-five years before this was recognized as a distinct profession.
His results were enthusiastically received, and attracted nation-wide attention for their thoroughness. His thesis was printed in full in the annual report of the board of regents, a wholly exceptional recognition. He was asked to address the legislature on the subject of his sugar experiments. Such honors for the production of a piece of scientific work have rarely been heard of in Wisconsin, either before or since. Swenson had been unusually fortunate in selecting two problems of great public interest, and in arriving speedily at sound, practical results: the water supply, and sugar refining.
A tragi-comic incident occurred soon afterward, which made it expedient for Swenson to leave the scene of his triumphs. He had perfected a method of increasing the yield of crystallizable sugar from sorghum molasses by the use of the centrifuge. He arranged to present an experiment on centrifugal separation in the basement of the newly erected Science Hall before an audience of farmers and legislators. A large centrifugal separator had been set up to handle one barrel of molasses. Farmers, legislators, faculty members, and townspeople to the number of four hundred were present to watch the experiments, all clad in their Sunday best. Through some misunderstanding the mechanic who set up the apparatus had geared the speed to ten times its rated value. The machine gradually gained speed until it reached a rate of four thousand revolutions per minute. The whirling basket rose out of its cage and started to spread an umbrella of molasses above the heads of the assembled audience.
Swenson hastened to apply the brakes, and as the machine slowed down, the umbrella changed to multiple streams of thick molasses, flowing out in long serpent streams, winding in graceful knots and sinuous curves about the heads and necks of the well-dressed audience. Everyone in the audience was smeared with molasses, inside clothes and out. A cry went up to lynch Magnus, but he could not be found in the midst of all the molasses. Even after thorough cleaning a slight stain remained on the clothes. It proved embarrassing for Swenson to be confronted with four hundred prominent victims. Every day he would meet one or more of his victims or try to escape attention when he encountered a man with a stained suit of clothes. Swenson said that a year later he still recognized two of his victims on a train leaving Chicago.
For his thesis on sugar Swenson unexpectedly received a check for $2,500 from the Department of Agriculture, which
was awarded for the best thesis on sugar chemistry. This led to a visit from Colonel E. H. Cunningham, a sugar plantation owner from Texas, who was looking for a superintendent for his sugar refinery. Swenson astonished him by replying that he had never been in a large sugar refinery. Cunningham, who was a big, powerful man of 240 pounds, an officer of the Confederacy, broke out, "Then how in hell did you get the government award? .... That you will have to ask the Department of Agriculture about," replied Swenson. Although he was taken aback, the colonel still wanted him. Swenson, on his wife's advice, asked a salary so high that he was sure the colonel would refuse. He demanded $10,000 a year, with a five-year contract. The colonel was shocked; he snorted and walked away. Shortly he returned. "All right. Come along. Here is a cheek for the first $10,000," he said, and handed the surprised chemist a cheek for the full amount.
Within a year's time Swenson had increased the yield of the colonel's sugar cane from 100 to 200 pounds per ton of cane. But after organizing the industry, Swenson did not stay with his new employer. He found life in Texas very unattractive. The plantation and mill were operated with negro convicts, who were treated as beasts. The climate and the food disagreed with him also, and after his first year he went to Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1883 he was employed by a group of Boston capitalists to develop the refining of sugar from sorghum cane. An experimental plant was built at Ottawa, Kansas, but the first two years of its operation were not a success. In the meantime the government was continuing its experiments on sorghum cane in Kansas, under the direction of Harvey W. Wiley as chief chemist and Norman J. Coleman as secretary of agriculture.
The chief obstacle to successful sugar refining was the inversion of sugar to glucose, a flat, unpalatable product with little sweetness. Swenson had overcome this by the use of
lime, but this left a bitter taste in the molasses. In 1885 he got around this trouble by using freshly precipitated calcium carbonate. In 1886 he applied for patents on this process, known as carbonation. Judge W. L. Parkinson proceeded to erect a large refinery in Fort Scott, with Swenson as plant superintendent. The Department of Agriculture sought permission to establish an experiment station inside the factory, with G. L. Spencer as chemist working under Harvey Wiley. Swenson was also appointed as a government chemist to aid in the investigation. All of these men later became distinguished men of science, but their relationship here was marred by a disagreement between the government men and Swenson. Wiley refused to try Swenson's calcium carbonate process, the experiments were failures, and in August, 1886, the government men withdrew.
Swenson proceeded on his own, with remarkable success. The factory produced as much in one week as during an entire season under Dr. Wiley. Swenson reported that "we are succeeding far beyond anything I ever dreamed of." A new industry was born involving hundreds of millions of dollars in capital and bound to expand throughout the South. Wiley, however, asserted that Swenson's process was developed during governmental employment and that he had no right to patent it. It grew into a controversy which occupied space in hundreds of newspapers here and abroad. Every effort was made to deprive Swenson of his patent. The case was debated at length both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. It was then referred to the attention and decision of the attorney general. It was definitely shown that Swenson had developed his method over a period of five years preceding the government experiments at Ottawa. Furthermore the failure at Ottawa was due to the refusal of the government chemists to try Swenson's method. Swenson's patent was granted on October 11, 1887. This patent case became an important and celebrated
decision in establishing certain patent rights for men engaged in government service.
With the prospect of vast new industries in Kansas and the western plain states a great political controversy now arose. The former commissioner of agriculture, W. L. Leduc, and the chief chemist, Peter Collier, who had been discharged by President Arthur, now sought to return, and failures were accredited to the present incumbents, Coleman and Wiley. The development of the sugar industry by Swenson was a headline feature in newspapers throughout the United States and appeared as well in foreign papers in France, England, Cuba, and in the Scandinavian countries. With the patent granted, the controversy between Swenson and Wiley was ended. From this time on Wiley maintained the highest regard for Swenson and in succeeding years frequently called upon him for chemical engineering service in the production of alcohol from molasses. Wiley also benefited by his own mistake. He became the best known chemist in public life. It was Wiley who fought for twenty years for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and who for twenty years following fought to see that the provisions of the law were fulfilled.
With the patent granted, business at the factory in Kansas began to boom. A great city- and state-wide celebration was held at Fort Scott in honor of Parkinson and Swenson, with Secretary of Agriculture Coleman as the chief speaker. Praises and honors were showered on the inventor, who was hailed as the Eli Whitney of sugar. Sugar production grew rapidly and profitably. The success of Swenson's new diffusion process is shown by the difference between output and production costs: for every ton of cane the value of products obtained was $9.50, while the cost of manufacture was only $2.00. Representatives came from Chile, Egypt, Hawaii, France, and Germany to inspect the new plant.
At this time, when the future of the sugar industry in
Kansas seemed so promising, Swenson made a most strategic decision. From his early experiences in Texas he foresaw that the sorghum sugar industry could not endure many years in competition with the sugar cane production of the South or the beet sugar industry of the West. Accordingly he abandoned sugar manufacture and went into the production of sugar machinery. The sugar machinery imported from Germany had proven inadequate and unsatisfactory. The foreign disintegrators frayed the stalks without giving a clean cut, the evaporators were extravagant in the use of steam, the diffusion batteries provided no means of recirculation and temperature control, the filter presses used excessive amounts of water.
Swenson invented a new machine for cutting cane which gave a sharp cut and had safety features that protected workmen from the sharp blades. He went on to design and build new types of diffusion batteries, filters, defecators, evaporators, centrifugals, and strike pans. Swenson was prepared to do this because of his engineering training, his natural mechanical aptitudes, and because of his early experiences in the shops at Janesville and in his father's rope factory. He became one of the first scientists to combine the skill of the chemist and the inventiveness of the mechanical engineer. He was one of the first chemical engineers/in the full sense of the word. He did not stop with the mere selection and specification of equipment, but was active in actual design and construction. The Fort Scott Foundry and Machine Works was established, in which Swenson held a half interest.
From this time on Swenson's interests turned to the perfection of chemical engineering equipment. It was characteristic of his alert and active mind to direct his interests to new creative efforts, to new products and inventions. Whenever a factory, or machine, or institution was perfected and could be entrusted to others, he willingly made the
transfer with little regard for further credit or recognition or even adequate compensation.
On November 30, 1886, Swenson received his first patent on a filter press of the plate and frame type, with portholes for thorough washing and for cake building in frames and with separate ports for the entrance of wash water in alternate plates. It provided means for washing the cake with equal resistance to flow over the entire path, thus requiring least consumption of water. This design still remains the best of the plate and frame type and the best filter for handling precipitates of small bulk. His next invention was an evaporator of the submerged horizontal tube type, heated with steam inside the tubes. This took the place of an earlier vertical tube type. Swenson permitted the liquid inside the evaporator to flow back and forth across tiers of shelves heated by steam-filled tubes. This scheme permitted rapid flow of liquid with attendant high heat transmission coefficients and minimized decomposition due to the short time of contact of solution with the tubes.
In chemical engineering Swenson's chief fame rests upon evaporators. These evaporators are still manufactured, and thousands of machines still bear his name in chemical plants scattered over the entire world. Swenson did not discover the basic principle of multiple effect evaporation but was the first to achieve success with its application to horizontal tube evaporation. The principles of shallow evaporation, several trays, and circuitous flow are no longer employed, but the rectangular body, simple construction, horizontal tubes, easily replaceable parts, and large chamber for the prevention of entrainment are still retained and manufactured by the Swenson Evaporator Company, now a subsidiary of the Whiting Corporation of Harvey, Illinois. During the next few years Swenson continued the improvement of evaporators by devising means for increasing heat transmission coefficients and for reducing entrainment losses by
installation of baffles and foam separators. He devised a means of removing impurities during evaporation. In one plant alone an annual saving of forty-two thousand dollars was effected by the reduction of entrainment losses. An easily replaceable tube for evaporators displacing the rolled-end type which could not be easily removed was also his invention. In this new design the tube was fitted loosely with rubber gaskets at each end and with a packing plate to compress and tighten the gasket. The identical design is standard practice today.
From 1886 to 1896 Swenson's patents dealt with processes and machinery used in the sugar industry. He designed and built diffusers, evaporators, special cutters, and disintegrators for chopping cane. He developed automatic laborsaving machinery for straight-line production, so that cane could be carried continuously through the plant. He devised an endless chain for conveying the crushed cane without clogging the sprocket wheel and linkages with trash. He perfected the diffusion battery to provide for independent heating and rapid recirculation of liquid in each diffuser, a principle which is now universal and which also proved the means of recovering pure glycerin without decomposition. Swenson early recognized the advantages of multiple effect evaporation. In a triple effect evaporator three pounds of water can be evaporated for each pound of steam, whereas in a single effect evaporator only one can be evaporated per pound of steam. Swenson evaporators were shipped to all parts of the world, to France, Germany, Austria, Algeria, Cuba, Hawaii, and Scotland.
In 1891 a quadruple effect evaporator was shipped to Honolulu, which was transported on fifteen freight ears. This machine had an evaporative capacity of one and one-half million pounds of water per day, and is still in faithful and economical operation after forty-six years of service. It is perhaps still the largest evaporator in the world. One refinery in Louisiana reported that all its equipment, to a
cost of $200,000, was designed by Swenson and manufactured at Fort Scott. Swenson's multiple effect evaporators were operating on exhaust steam with high steam economy, rapid evaporation, no entrainment losses, and no decomposition of contents. A firm in Manchester, England, reported results of 64 per cent above the rated capacity of the manufacturers.
In one of his early years his first job of installing an evaporator away from Fort Scott was on a Louisiana plantation. Some time later young Swenson received a telegram informing him that his evaporator had blown up, taking along much of the plant with it and killing two men. He was warned to keep out of Louisiana. Instead of heeding the warning, Swenson at once boarded the train for the sugar refinery, apprehensive of his engineering reputation. He arrived in the Louisiana town at night and made his way to the plant in darkness. Quietly he approached the plant. The factory was in full operation, the lights were on, the machinery was running. He entered the plant and timidly asked, "Is anything wrong with the evaporator? No, nothing is wrong," was the foreman's response. Magnus held out his telegram and fainted away. The telegram had been faked to keep him out and to allow some competitor to sell equipment. He stayed a few days to operate the evaporator, and discovered that its capacity was far below the guarantee. He knew something was wrong, and found that a malicious employee had connected a two-inch city water main directly to the evaporator with the valve open. The evaporator was being called upon to evaporate the city water supply.
Swenson's inventive genius soon spread to many other activities. The Fort Scott Foundry and Machine Works became the Walburn-Swenson Company, with factories in Chicago Heights and with offices in New York City. In 1891 Swenson moved to Chicago and returned for a time to mining, the profession for which he had trained himself at Madison. The Swenson ore concentrator was invented and
used in nearly all mining states, and in Mexico, Chile, and Honduras on copper, lead, and zinc ores. In Wisconsin, mills were installed in several places, by the Wisconsin Lead and Zinc Company, by the Shullsburg and Benton Lead and Zinc Company, and by the Potosi Lead and Zinc Company. In Central America concentrators were used on copper and lead ores, in Tennessee on fluorspar, in Georgia on manganese ores. One concentrating plant was built in Canada near Hudson Bay. To Central America alone seven hundred thousand dollars worth of mining machines were shipped. Equipment. was supplied to W. A. Clark, the Guggenheim and Hecla Consolidated.
It was inevitable that Swenson's evaporators would find many other uses in chemical industries than their original purpose of refining sugar. Kansas was rich in salt, being underlain by unlimited deposits. This salt was formerly recovered entirely by the grainer method of evaporating the brine in long pans. As a result of replacing the grainer with triple effect evaporators, the steam consumption required for evaporation was cut to one-third, and a small cubical type of crystal was obtained instead of the usual hopper type.
Swenson's machinery was built to save labor, by-products, power, and steam. His motto in life was "save the waste." After moving to Chicago, he went into the utilization of various waste by-products. He worked with Procter and Gamble in the recovery of salt and glycerin from waste soap liquors. He worked with Swift and Company in the production of soap from waste tallow and in the recovery of glycerin as a by-product. He eliminated the health hazard in many occupations. In a plant for the concentration of licorice he found girls keeping the foam down by whipping the boiling liquid with sticks. He replaced this with vacuum evaporators designed to take care of excessive foaming. His consultation extended to Colgates, Royal Baking Powder Company, Liggett and Myers, Nelson Morris, Libby, McNeil
and Libby. He designed equipment for caustic soda manufacture, paper and pulp mills, glue plants, tanneries, tobacco mills, and even pharmaceuticals. He investigated the recovery of soda ash and sodium sulphate from the salt lakes of Wyoming.
The newspapers of 1885 to 1890 repeatedly referred to Swenson as the Eli Whitney of sugar manufacture. An opportunity came which led Swenson into the very field associated with Eli Whitney's name. The cotton gin had made cotton the most important agricultural pursuit in America, but the handling of cotton had not kept up with its production. After ginning, the cotton was passed to a condenser to throw off dirt and make a uniform bat. From here it was thrown into a gin press and compressed under three thousand tons pressure per bale to a density of twelve pounds per cubic foot. The shape of this bale was rectangular in cross section.
Mr. T. S. Taylor, who is an old associate of Swenson's and who is still in the employ of the Swenson Evaporator Company, reported two personal incidents pertinent to early experiments in the recovery of by-products from the industrial wastes of Chicago packing plants. Swenson had successfully introduced solvent extraction, using gasoline for the recovery of oil and grease from tankage. In one of these early experiments he was badly burned by an explosion of gasoline vapors. At another time an evaporator and new-type drum drier was designed to recover the waste matter from stockyard sewage. Taylor writes, "A large sewer was dammed to store sewage for the evaporator. Mr. Swenson was standing in the open sewer, below the dam, when the dam burst and the vile smelling sewage flowed over him. He would have been washed into the underground sewer if a couple of men had not been close enough to fish him out. Mr. Swenson never cared much about this story, although it led to big things in the recovery of wastes."
The chief difficulty with this bale was its low density with corresponding great bulk. For this reason transportation facilities were inadequate during the picking season. The cotton remained exposed for eight weeks subject to damage by air and rain. Furthermore, in compression the air was heated in the interior of the bale with the danger of spontaneous combustion. The loose bale permitted absorption of water and invited fire. For fifty years vain efforts had been made to produce a cylindrical bale.
In 1896 Swenson was employed as a consulting engineer of the American Cotton Company to develop the cylindrical bale. For the next six years he spent much of his time in designing machinery for this purpose, and was rewarded by success. The so-called round-lap bales could be unrolled clear to the center when they were to be used. The cotton was compressed to a density of 85 pounds per cubic foot under a pressure of less than fifteen tons. The bales showed no tendency to expand, and hence required no iron bands in baling. The cylindical bales loaded to full capacity the weight capacity of freight ears and steamships, whereas the rectangular bale loaded to only one-quarter capacity. One fourth the number of ears were required for shipment. The savings effected totaled $4.50 per bale, or about one cent per pound of cotton in 1900.
Over fifty patents were taken out in the development of the cylindrical bale. In recognition of this achievement the committee on arts and sciences of the Franklin Institute awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal to the American Cotton Company, and granted Magnus Swenson the John Scott Legacy Premium and Medal on April 4, 1900. In the words of the awarding committee, "the highest award in the gift of the Franklin Institute is believed to be only a proper recognition of the importance of the revolution in the cotton industry brought about by the introduction of the round lap bale system."
An anti-climax followed Swenson's development of the cylindrical bale. Introduction of the cylindrical bale was resisted by all transportation companies because of reduced revenues, and in the meantime improvements were made in the square bale which prevented the widespread use of the cylindrical bale. The compressed hale, however, is still used in ocean transportation.
Mechanical inventions in the textile industry are among the most complex in industry, and have exerted the greatest social repercussions in conditions of labor and in cost of products. Unusual mechanical genius is required in the intricate interweaving of the motions of cams, gears, links, and chains. Among other inventions which Swenson contributed to this field were devices for sampling and opening bales, condensers, and compressors; methods for covering bales, of ginning cotton, of removing the seed; and belts for continuous delivery, tie devised methods of ginning cotton with a plurality of gang saws, of winding cotton bats under pressure. He minimized dust explosions in handling cotton by introducing steam and carbon dioxide to dust flues. He devised a method of solvent recovery of cottonseed oil. Among miscellaneous early inventions were a horseless carriage, in 1897, and a cotton picking machine. Both inventions were ahead of their time.
The last of Swenson's significant contributions in the line of science was his work for the establishment of satisfactory training in the field of his chosen profession. In 1898 a department of applied electrochemistry had been organized at the University of Wisconsin by Professor Charles F. Burgess, later head of the C. F. Burgess Battery Company. Professor Burgess had long sought to widen the scope of this course to cover the entire field of the chemical industries under the title of "chemical engineering." Dean J. B. Johnson of the college of engineering supported this plan strongly. There had been a course in chemical engineering at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1888, but the first books bearing this title did not appear until 1904.
As he looked about for support in his campaign, Dean Johnson thought of Magnus Swenson, and on November 21, 1899, he wrote him the following letter:
May I again call your attention to the matter of giving us a lecture, before our engineering faculty and students, which we can have printed as a bulletin and circulated throughout the State as a sort of campaign document in favor of the establishment of a strong course in chemical engineering. I would like for you to reinforce what I have said on the subject by argument and numerous examples which you could cite from your own experience and knowledge which such a combined education would give, and as to the great disadvantage which various lines of manufacturing have been working under from the want of such guidance. Without mentioning names you could cite innumerable instances of the benefits on the one hand, and of the financial loss and sometimes ruin, on the other, which would make the case so strong that there would seem to be but one side left to the question.
We would, of course, try to give you a good audience here, but I think you should have in mind in the preparation of this paper this larger audience throughout the state, including the members of our own legislature.
A similar request came to Swenson from the Western Society of Engineers, Chicago, on April 7, 1900. Swenson's address on "The Chemical Engineers" was delivered in Madison in 1900 and distributed throughout the state. He referred briefly to some of his own experiences and dwelt at length upon the possible service of the chemical engineer in Wisconsin in the manufacture of paper, Portland cement, leather, soap, glue, sugar, and in the clay, tanning, and brewing industries. He concluded with the statement, "Let the University of Wisconsin take hold of this matter in earnest and I predict for the Department of Chemical Engineering a career that will reflect credit to the University and redound to the prosperity of the State." Three years later the department of chemical engineering was organized, under the headship of Professor C. F. Burgess. Burgess writes that
"Magnus Swenson played a part, and an important one in making Wisconsin a pioneer among the Universities which initiated courses in Chemical Engineering."
In 1902, Swenson moved to Madison with the intention of retiring from industrial pursuits. He was now financially independent and was tired of living under the severe pressure and responsibility of his consulting and manufacturing enterprises. He willingly turned over his inventions and his factories to others without much regard for adequate compensation or credit. However, his restless and active spirit did not permit him to remain long in retirement. Two industrial enterprises attracted his attention. He was prevailed upon to accept the presidency of the United States Sugar Plant in Madison, and to manage the development of power on the Wisconsin River. Under Swenson's management and through the skill of the eminent hydraulic engineer, D. W. Mead, two hydro-electric plants were erected at Kilbourn and Prairie du Sac, the first great hydro-electric developments west of Niagara Falls.
This period marks a transition in Swenson's life, the transition from a life devoted to invention, to industrial development in chemical manufacture, and to production of chemical machinery to the life of an administrator and executive in undertaking great civic duties for his city, state, and nation. These latter duties occupied the last twenty-five years of his life and have nearly eclipsed his early technical achievements. An account of these latter activities is beyond the scope of this paper.
Two traits of character are outstanding in the life of Swenson, his exceptional versatility and his extreme practicality. To him life was ever interesting and adventurous. He quickly transferred his interests from one problem to another, attacking each problem with utmost zeal and enthusiasm. Like the great scientist, Louis Agassiz, he could say, "I have never spent a dull hour in my life." In reaching his
goals he was persistent, confident, determined, and relentless in applying himself. He cared little for the rewards of his labor or for credit. Outside of his patents he transferred little of his developments to writing. He contributed to no scientific journals. He was interested in theory only in so far as it could be applied to practical uses. He spent no time in mathematical formulations but was able to cut a path straight through all the complex and intricate variables of chemical and mechanical processes to attain a reasonable and economical solution of the problem with the least expenditure of time. It was for these reasons that Swenson was so extremely productive in his career. He himself tended meticulously to all details during the invention of a machine or the development of a process, but when once he had attained the mastery he brushed it all aside and forgot forever the detailed minutiae of the scaffolding, not even stopping to record for posterity the path he had blazed.
<1> The incentive for preparing this paper came from Professor Julius E. Olson, who introduced the writer to Magnus Swenson on a personal visit to Thorstrand in 1932. A full account of Swenson's life was presented at a meeting of the Ygdrasil Society in Madison, Wisconsin, on May 14, 1938. At the suggestion of Professor Einar Haugen, and with his editorial assistance, the present portion of this paper was selected for publication in STUDIES AND RECORDS.