Invented in Cambridge | Part Three

Did you know that Cambridge is the birthplace of many 19th Century inventions?  Here is an obscure one that you may never have heard of!

Who invented a revolutionary and still-popular baking powder?

For more than 20 years, Eben Norton Horsford (1818-1893) taught chemistry at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School where he was Rumford Professor of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts. He installed the school’s first chemistry laboratory and “was renowned for his thoroughness, empiricism, and pragmatic cast of mind” (Richard R. John, Jr., “Brief Life of an Enterprising Antiquarian,” Harvard Magazine, September-October 1988). In 1863, Prof. Horsford resigned to pursue commercial applications of his chemical discoveries, including a totally new kind of baking powder.

The Lasting Power of a New Product

In the 1850s, single-action baking powder, made by combining baking soda and cream of tartar, was the standard, but it had  major  drawbacks.  It  bubbled up immediately when mixed with any water-based liquid, and goods had to be  baked  quickly  before the bubbles escaped and the food fell flat. The powder, often made at home in small batches, was easily ruined by dampness and humidity. Horsford changed this standard formula to create a stable, long-lasting product: sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), calcium acid phosphate (replacing cream of tartar), and cornstarch (to help keep the powder dry).

Called double-acting baking powder, the new mixture was easy to use, fizzed only when heat was applied, and had a stronger leavening action.

Rumford Baking Powder traveled west with the pioneers, was used by army cooks during the Civil War, and remains widely popular today.

Want more information?

If you have questions about inventors and inventions or other historical Cambridge innovations, please contact the Cambridge Historical Commission at 617-349-4683, , or visit us on the second floor of 831 Massachusetts Avenue.

Please contact us for an appointment.

Published by

Lee Gianetti

Director of Communications and Community Relations

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