The Ypsilantian’s Patented Corncob

May 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Food companies’ patenting of plants and seeds is a hot topic these days. Detractors say that patents should not be granted for the stuff of life, and proponents argue that the painstaking and expensive research and development going into allegedly improved crops justifies the patent.

Over a century ago, one Ypsilantian was doing the same. In 1882, painter James H. Davis patented a corncob.

However, he wasn’t patenting a genetic tweak or a resistance to herbicides. He called his device a “fire kindler,” and it was meant to save housewives’ fingers.

Davis’ corncob kindler was a corncob soaked in any one of a variety of flammable petroleum products, coated in varnish, and fitted with a wick. It was a handy firestarter for cold morning cookstoves.

His invention wasn’t new. Corncobs dipped in kerosene were a familiar fire-starting trick.

The 1913 book Audel’s Household Helps, Hints, and Receipts said, “A corn cob dried and soaked in kerosene will kindle a fire as quickly as a fire brick.”

Fiery corncobs were also useful in battling tent caterpillars in trees. “A corn cob soaked in kerosene and placed on a long pole makes a very convenient torch for burning the nests,” notes a 1910 agricultural bulletin from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Care should be taken not to injure the branches of the tree by allowing the blaze to come in contact with them too long.”

The cobs had other uses as well. Corncobs soaked in kerosene attached to a wire connected to a rope dragged by a horse were a good way for Western ranchers to ignite controlled burns on the prairie and encourage new growth.

And you could use one to pep up a cold Model T in winter. “When it refused to start on a subzero morning,” recalls Reynold Wik in his book Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America, “we took a corn cob, stuck it on a wire, dipped the cob into the gas tank, touched a match to provide a torch and heated the manifold.”

With such widespread use of the corncob torch, what distinguished Davis’s corncob?

“Be it known,” said his July 4, 1882 patent application, “that I, James H. Davis of Ypsilanti . . . have invented certain new and useful improvements in Fire-Kindlers . . . my object is to improve kindlers of this kind, first, by inserting in one end of a corn-cob a wooden plug which is adapted to receive and hold firmly in place a wick.” The wick was also dipped in a flammable material, and the cob was coated with varnish to prevent the evaporation of the flammable liquid saturating it.

Davis had made a corncob torch that would not leave a housewife’s fingers smelling of kerosene, or burned from a quickly-igniting cob.

It seems to be the only invention Davis ever made in his career. In the 1860 city directory, James Davis is listed as a drayman, someone who carted goods around town on a wagon for a fee.

By 1873, he had become a sign and carriage painter, living on Michigan Avenue near Hamilton.

In 1883, his occupation changes from painter to traveling salesman, possibly for his new and improved 1882 corncob.

If that is the case, his corncob venture didn’t succeed; in the ’88 directory he is once again listed as a painter, possible at the Beach Carriage Manufacturing Company where his brother Clawson worked as a blacksmith.

Davis appears to have married late in life. Though he was a registered voter in the county as early as 1868, it is not until the 1901 city directory that he is listed as married, to one Sarah J. The couple lived on Michigan Avenue and in ’01 had the telephone number 354-2r.

Their neighbors there were harness-maker George Schaffer, doctor George Hull, traveling salesman Charles Mansfield, the widow Ann Skinner, blacksmith Thomas Hughes, and White Laundry worker Elmer Hayden.

Davis’s invention was created just as the urban need for them was waning. One ad in a city directory of this era says, “Get a Gas Range and Enjoy Life.” Coal and wood kitchen cook stoves were on the way out.

By the 1903 city directory, Sarah is listed as a widow.

Davis is one of the many unsung Ypsilantians who took out patents on devices they thought might catch on, earn some money, and improve the lives of their users. Though his patent never made him rich, it remains in the public record as testimony to the ingenuity and ambition of an ordinary man.

Laura Bien is the author of Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives. Have an interesting story about old-time Ypsi? Reach her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

Davis's 1882 patent brought the humble corncob to new heights.

Davis's 1882 patent brought the humble corncob to new heights.

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