A sketch last week of the late Hartselle De Burney Kinsey, who was born in the Roanoke Valley in 1901 and died at the age of 92, described his work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on behalf of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb and hastened the end of World War II 75 years ago.
Not mentioned was the part he played in development of a product that has helped keep the world’s motor vehicles moving for almost 100 years now.
Kinsey was not long out of school at Roanoke College when in 1924 he went to work in the Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corp. plant in Clendenin, West Virginia. That company was a 1920 spinoff from Union Carbide & Carbon Corp., itself incorporated in 1917 after a stock purchase of four other companies, according to Union Carbide’s history summary. One of those quartet of merged businesses, Union Carbide Co., had formed in 1898.
Kinsey retired after 42 years with Union Carbide as one of its vice presidents. Back in the 1920s, when he was just getting started, the Clendenin plant was producing commercial ethylene. Union Carbide says today that facility represented the birth of the petrochemical industry.
Ethylene is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a colorless flammable gaseous unsaturated hydrocarbon … that is found in coal gas” with numerous commercial applications. In 2016, worldwide demand was at 150 million tons, according to researchandmarkets.com.
In any event, a couple of years into Kinsey’s service to Carbon Chemicals, it was noted that when the company discharged byproducts of the ethylene manufacturing process into the Kanawha River during bitter winter weather, something odd happened. The river did not freeze.
Responding to the phenomena, curious chemists took to the lab to investigate. By and by experiments yielded a new chemical, ethylene glycol, an alcohol that had the curious twin properties of low freezing and high boiling points. Somebody thought there might be an application for the then-primitive cooling systems of cars and trucks.
At the time Kinsey’s brother was in the sign business and also operated a dairy farm in Roanoke. Nephew Bob Kinsey picks up the story there.
“Hartselle sent a 5-gallon can of the stuff to my father and told him to try it in the company’s vehicles and also in our farm machinery and let him know how it did.”
Vehicle radiator boil over and freezing ended. The sign company folks were impressed, which was reported back to Hartselle over in West Virginia.
Remember that next time you dump some sweet-smelling (but highly toxic) ethylene glycol-based antifreeze in your radiator.
You might also wonder in what other instances rampant water pollution resulted in at least one favorable outcome.
That brings us to another type of alcohol-based product manufacture: booze.
A while back, some of the history of the old 14-acre Casper Distillery appeared in this space. The company in the early years of the city once fronted on Hollins Road north of the intersection with Orange Avenue.
Calvin Weddle, 80, who has been a source for all kinds of interesting local trivia carried here, grew up on Hollins Road and recalled that the site of the distillery was known as Casper Hill. The reason this was a favorable location to make liquor was because it contained a powerful spring, one of the countless such gushers lubricating the Roanoke Valley.
“When I was a child, the spring was still exposed and it had a large stream flowing from solid rock,” Weddle wrote.
Aside from the numerous bars and what once were known as “houses of ill repute” on Salem Avenue, alcohol flowed freely elsewhere in the turn of the century city besides Casper Hill.
Over on Staunton Avenue Northwest, S.P. Hite Co. Inc. was manufacturing “patent medicines” including “aspirin, borax, camphor, cough syrup, castor oil, cold tablets, Epsom salts, essential oils, flavoring extracts, iodine, iron, mercurochrome, mineral oil, peroxide, quinine, rubbing alcohol, salicylic acid, spices, etc.”
Those products are on the back of a promotional 15-inch ruler issued by the company and now under stewardship of the Historical Society of Western Virginia.
The company was founded in Staunton and moved here in 1905 when local investors bought the controlling stock, according to the society.
One of the company’s biggest sellers was a potion called Hite’s Pain Cure. Antique bottles once home to the stuff are now available for sale online.
Among reasons for the product’s effectiveness not to mention popularity is suggested by the active ingredients listed on the label, one in particular.
Sixty-five percent alcohol.
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