Orin Stafford, inventor of the charcoal briquette, is buried in Eugene's Pioneer Cemetery near the Knight Library.
Charcoal has been used by humans for millennia, but nowadays it’s most likely to be found in the familiar packages we buy every Fourth of July or football season. The next time you fire up the grill—this summer, while enjoying a barbecue on Independence Day, or this fall, while tailgating outside Autzen Stadium—raise a toast to the Duck who helped make it all possible: former University of Oregon chemistry department chair Orin Stafford.
An Ohio native, Stafford attended the University of Kansas and assisted in groundbreaking research on liquid ammonia before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1900. He was offered a teaching position at the University of Oregon, and moved west to accept.
Upon arrival, he decided to call upon Dean of Men John Straub, a professor of Greek and, later, the namesake of Straub Hall. When Stafford knocked on Straub’s door, it flew open to reveal the dean’s 18-year-old daughter, Mary Elizabeth “Leila” Straub. She pushed past him, knocking him off his feet, in an attempt to flee her brother. That introduction clearly made an impression on Stafford, and he married Leila on Christmas Eve in 1903.
The couple spent a year in Germany—where Stafford did graduate work under the tutelage of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Walther Nernst—and later had three children: Howard, Miriam, and John. At the University of Oregon, Stafford proved to be a patient and dedicated teacher, and earned the lasting admiration and respect of his students. By 1906, he became a full professor and chair of the chemistry department.
During his tenure at the UO, Stafford’s interest was piqued by an unusual subject: charcoal. In the early 20th century, charcoal was mainly used for commercial heating and railroads. It was manufactured by putting wood into a kiln, lighting a fire, and then sealing it shut to cut off the oxygen. The wood, left to smolder, produced charcoal, but by using that process it took nearly a week to cool down. Stafford hoped to create a more efficient manufacturing process, as well as shorten the time needed for the charcoal to cool.
First, he designed a rotary kiln in which to conduct his experiments. He fed the kiln sawdust instead of wood, successfully managing to cut back on cooking and cooling times due to increased surface area. However, the process came with one major drawback: the resulting powder was extremely difficult to use.
To remedy this, Stafford created a binding agent consisting of starch, water, and tar, and the mixture was then baked at 400 degrees Celsius. The result was the pillow-shaped charcoal lumps we know today. He dubbed his invention “briquettes,” and patented it in 1923.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, automobile magnate Henry Ford had a problem: he had too much wood, and didn’t know what to do with it.
Pictured (l-r): Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and
Edward Kingsford. Not pictured: Orin Stafford, the man who had the solution the quartet was looking for.
With the help of a relative, Ford had purchased thousands of acres of forestland in the Upper Peninsula to build his cars. At that time, a Model T required wood for its wheel spokes, engine cowling, and cabin frame. A sawmill was constructed near the forest, and the town that sprung up around it was renamed in honor of Ford’s relative.
Ford’s production facilities soon brimmed with sawdust and scrap wood. Loath to allow anything go to waste, Ford began to explore ways to turn the excess wood into profit. When he discovered Stafford’s patent he had his solution, and his friend, Thomas Edison, designed a factory to produce the charcoal briquettes from Ford’s leftover wood.
Ford shortened “briquettes” to “briquets,” and began to sell them at his dealerships alongside portable grills. The idea was that customers would buy the “picnic kits” while investing in a car, so they could escape on weekend excursions. The idea was a success, and for every ton of scrap wood his factories generated, Ford sold 681 pounds of charcoal.
In 1951, Ford sold the briquet operation just as backyard barbecuing was becoming a popular American pastime, and the buyer renamed it after the distant relative who helped Ford buy the forest, and for whom the town the plant had been built in was named.
Edward G. Kingsford.
Yes, Kingsford charcoal is a product invented by UO chemistry professor Orin Stafford.
Thank you, Professor Stafford.
While Ford and Kingsford were commercializing Stafford’s invention, the professor was advancing at the UO. He became the university’s dean of science in 1934, and that same year won an award for the rotary kiln he developed in his early charcoal experimentation. To the end of his life, Stafford remained interested in wood waste and was regarded as an expert on the topic.
In 1941, Stafford fell ill and retired from the UO, intent on focusing his energy on regaining his health and tending to his beloved garden. He died later that year, fully a decade before his invention was rebranded “Kingsford,” and is buried in Pioneer Cemetery.
- by UO student Abby Keep
Photo of Orin Stafford courtesy the Stafford family. Photo of Ford, Kingsford, et. al. from Kingsford.com