Our tale begins in two distinct corners of human civilization, around 3500 BC. The first is the arid, dusty plains of Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers breathed life into the land. The second is the fertile floodplains of the Nile river in Egypt. It was in these cradles of civilization that humans made a discovery that would reverberate through millennia: they learned how to create glass.
The early glass was a by-product of a glazing process applied to stone beads. Made from silica-based sands and soda, and transformed by intense heat, these early humans had stumbled upon a material that would become integral to human civilization. Over centuries, the rudimentary process evolved, taking advantage of the inherent properties of glass: its ability to be both solid and liquid, transparent and colorful. By the time of the Roman Empire, glass was a common material, used for windows, containers, and decorative objects.
A crucial milestone in the evolution of glass was the invention of glassblowing, believed to have been developed by the Phoenicians around 50 BC. This technique, which involved inflating molten glass into a bubble with the aid of a blowpipe, allowed for greater control over the shape and size of the glass items. This was a significant leap in technology, as it allowed for the creation of long, uniform glass tubes, which would later prove crucial for scientific exploration.
Fast forward to 17th-century Italy, where the Renaissance had birthed a new era of scientific exploration and understanding. Here, a man named Evangelista Torricelli, a student of the great Galileo Galilei, was pushing the boundaries of human understanding of the natural world. Using the glass tubes produced by the refined art of glassblowing, Torricelli invented the barometer. His invention demonstrated the existence of atmospheric pressure, a concept that was revolutionary for its time and laid the groundwork for future exploration into the power of vacuums and pressure.
Meanwhile, in the late 17th century, another significant development was taking shape. England was on the brink of an unprecedented societal transformation – the Industrial Revolution. This era was defined by the transition from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, and the increased use of steam power. The principles of mechanics and physics, established during the Scientific Revolution, underpinned these transformations. Sir Isaac Newton, whose laws of motion and universal gravitation became the cornerstone of physics, laid the groundwork for the machines and innovations to come.
The steam engine was one such innovation. Birthed from the minds of Thomas Newcomen and John Calley in the early 18th century, the steam engine revolutionized industry. Their engine, designed to pump water out of England’s coal mines, harnessed the power of atmospheric pressure to create a reliable and powerful source of energy. This technology dramatically increased the efficiency of coal mining and set the stage for the widespread industrial use of steam power.
In the decades that followed, James Watt, a Scottish inventor, significantly improved upon Newcomen’s design. His version of the steam engine, patented in 1769, was more efficient and versatile, further driving the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine not only powered factories and mills but also locomotives, transforming transportation and enabling the rise of railways.
Parallel to these developments in Europe, in a young America, the seeds of industrial transformation were being sown. Oliver Evans, an American inventor, was inspired by the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. He sought to apply the principles established by Newton and the mechanical innovations spurred by the steam engine to the process of milling. His invention of the mechanical conveyor, or bucket elevator, forever changed the handling and storage of bulk materials.
Evans’ bucket elevators would soon find a new use, thanks to the rapid expansion of the United States in the mid-19th century. Fueled by the steam engine’s power, railway networks sprawled across the continent, linking the vast agricultural heartland to ports and markets. The agricultural boom of this era led to a significant increase in grain production, and with it, the need for efficient storage and transportation systems.
Against this backdrop, grain elevators, equipped with Evans’ mechanical conveyors, began to dot the landscape. Built alongside the railway lines, these towering structures could store large quantities of grain and load it onto trains, revolutionizing the grain trade.
As we arrive in the mid-19th century, a vital shift was taking place. In the heartland of America, vast tracts of land were being cultivated, the agricultural boom was in full swing, and with it, the need for efficient storage and transportation systems. At the nexus of these developments, towering structures equipped with Evans’ mechanical conveyors began to spring up alongside the ever-expanding railway lines. These structures, known as grain elevators, were capable of storing vast amounts of grain and loading it onto trains, a revolution in the grain trade.
A certain individual, an astute observer of his time, recognized the convergence of these pivotal moments in history. Utilizing the glassworking techniques, the efficient steam-powered railway network, and the newly invented grain elevators, he seized an opportunity in the thriving grain trade. He set up a modest operation in the small town of Conover, Iowa. This venture, born out of the confluence of millennia of innovation, would expand and evolve in ways he could scarcely have imagined. Unbeknownst to many, these threads of history — the ancient art of glassmaking, the revolutionary steam engine, the laws of motion, and the rise of mechanized grain storage — had woven together a world in which a simple grain trader could sow the seeds of a global giant.
The name of that grain trader? William W. Cargill. And his company, a symbol of the profound interconnectedness of our world, is known today as Cargill Incorporated. The Cargill facility in Blair, Nebraska was opened in 1973, and everyone who works there is part of a chain of events over time that began thousands of years – and miles – away.