Eben Norton Horsford

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Eben Norton Horsford
Eben Norton Horsford

Eben Norton Horsford (July 27, 1818 – January 1, 1893) was an American scientist who is best known for his reformulation of baking powder, his interest in Viking settlements in America, and the monuments he built to Leif Erikson.

Life and career[edit]

Anne Whitney, Eben Norton Horsford, 1890, Davis Museum, Wellesley College

Eben Horsford was born in Livingston County, New York in 1818.[1] He studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating as a civil engineer at age 19. He then worked for two years in the Geological Survey of New York, and shortly after he had reached his majority he became an instructor in mathematics and the sciences at the Albany Female Academy, where he taught for four years, after which he resumed his studies in Germany with Justus von Liebig. On returning to the United States, Horsford was appointed the Rumford Professor and Lecturer on the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard in 1847. He taught chemistry and conducted research at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard for 16 years, and published articles in major scientific publications on such topics as phosphates, condensed milk, fermentation, and emergency rations.

Eben Horsford probably is best remembered today for reformulating baking powder. Previously, baking powder had contained baking soda and cream of tartar. Horsford replaced the cream of tartar with the more reliable calcium biphosphate (also known as calcium acid phosphate and many other names).[2] He did this a little earlier than August Oetker. In 1854, Horsford, with partner George Wilson, formed the Rumford Chemical Works. They named it after the title of Horsford's position at Harvard. It was in that enterprise that Horsford created his commercially successful baking powder. Horsford's development of baking powder was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2006.[3]

A generous supporter of higher education for women, Horsford became president of the board of visitors of Wellesley College, and donated money for books, scientific apparatus, and a pension fund to the college. He enjoyed remarkable success through his development of processes for manufacturing baking powder and condensed milk. In seeking patents for his inventions, Horsford was assisted by Charles Grafton Page, a patent solicitor who had previously worked at the US Patent Office.[4]

Professor Eben Norton Horsford created the Shelter Island Public Library in Shelter Island, New York in 1885. He donated 280 volumes for the first library, which was initially housed in a closet in the Old Store, a building that functioned as a post office, telegraph station, and local meeting place. After the store burned down in 1891, a new library for more books donated by Professor Horsford was built on a nearby lot donated by his daughter Lilian, and his daughter Cornelia became the library’s first president.


Horsford became interested in the theory that the Vikings, specifically Leif Ericson, had visited North America, and set out to prove it.[5][6][7] He connected the Charles River Basin to places described in the Norse sagas, invented Old Norse etymologies for Algonquian place-names like Naumkeag, Namskaket, and Amoskeag, and 'discovered' Viking archaeological remains.[8][9] Horsford had a plaque documenting all this placed on Memorial Drive near Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few miles upstream, at the mouth of Stony Brook, he had Norumbega Tower built marking the supposed location of Norumbega, a Viking fort and city, complete with its Althing and America's first Christian bishop.[8] He also commissioned a statue of Leif Ericson that stands on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. The professor wrote a series of books, articles, and pamphlets about the Vikings' visits to Massachusetts. After his death, his daughter Cornelia Horsford took up the cause. Their work received little support from mainstream historians and archeologists at the time, and even less today.[2][10][11]

In honor of Horsford's generous donations to Wellesley College, a building named Norumbega Hall was dedicated in 1886 and celebrated by a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.[12]

Selected works[edit]



  1. ^ Both Stock and Van Klooster say that Horsford was born in Moscow (now called Leicester), New York, but the American Chemical Society web sites noted on this page say that the town was Livonia.
  2. ^ a b "Did Leif Erikson once live in Cambridge, Massachusetts?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 10 February 2009.
  3. ^ "Development of Baking Powder". American Chemical Society. Archived from the original on 12 January 2013. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
  4. ^ Post, Robert C. (1976). "Eben Horsford". Physics, Patents, and Politics: A Biography of Charles Grafton Page. New York: Science History Publications. p. 159.
  5. ^ "Did Leif Erikson once live in Cambridge, Massachusetts?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
  6. ^ Horsford, Eben Norton (1892). The Landfall of Leif Erikson, A.D. 1000: And the Site of His Houses in Vineland. Damrell and Upham.
  7. ^ Horsford, Eben Norton (1890). The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega. Houghton, Mifflin.
  8. ^ a b Robin Fleming (1995). "Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America". The American Historical Review. 100 (4): 1079–82. doi:10.1086/ahr/100.4.1061. JSTOR 2168201.
  9. ^ Eben Norton Horsford; Edward Henry Clement (1890). The discovery of the ancient city of Norumbega: A communication to the president and council of the American Geographical Society at their special session in Watertown, November 21, 1889. Houghton, Mifflin. p. 14. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
  10. ^ Steven Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory, 1991.
  11. ^ Gloria Polizzotti Greis "VIKINGS on the CHARLES or The Strange Saga of Dighton Rock, Norumbega, and Rumford Double-Acting Baking Powder". Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2008.. Needham Historical Society
  12. ^ John Greenleaf Whittier; Elizabeth Hussey Whittier (1894). The writings of John Greenleaf Whittier ... Houghton, Mifflin and company. pp. 222–. Retrieved 1 September 2011.

Further reading

  • Munday, Pat (1999). "Eben Horsford". In Garraty, John A.; Carnes, Mark C. (eds.). American National Biography. 11. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 227–228.
  • Rezneck, Samuel Rezneck (1970). "The European Education of an American Chemist, and Its Influence in 19th-Century America: Eben Norton Horsford". Technology and Culture. 11 (3): 366–388. doi:10.2307/3102198. JSTOR 3102198. PMID 11615557.
  • Stock, John T. (1988). "Eben Horsford (1818–1893) and the measurement of electrolytic resistance". Journal of Chemical Education. 65 (8): 700–701. doi:10.1021/ed065p700.
  • Van Klooster, H. S. (1956). "Liebig and his American pupils". Journal of Chemical Education. 33 (10): 493–497. doi:10.1021/ed033p493.

External links[edit]