January 24, 2007
The Man Who Brought You Cheerios
By David Hanners
Lester Borchardt might not have had a seat at your breakfast table, but there's a good chance he was there.
A physicist and lifelong tinkerer, Borchardt revolutionized the breakfast cereal industry. He had a big hand in developing the technologies that allow cereal companies -- in his case, General Mills -- to turn grain into cereals such as Cheerios and Kix, and he also played a key role in coming up with the process used to fortify milk with vitamin D.
Borchardt, of Minneapolis, died Sunday. He was 99.
Borchardt's inventions made Cheerios an American icon. But in one of those strange twists, his daughter never liked Cheerios.
"I used to like Corn Flakes," recalled Gail Borchardt, 69, who lives in Minneapolis.
The inventor spent 36 years at General Mills before retiring in 1969 as vice president and director of research. In his time at the company, he worked on projects ranging from food processing to high-altitude spy balloons to high-tech optics used by the Allies in World War II.
A dozen patents carry his name as inventor, said General Mills spokeswoman Maerenn Ball.
"He would like to take things apart and put them back together again," said his daughter.
Lester Ferdinand Borchardt was born May 30, 1907, in Minneapolis. He showed an affinity at an early age for figuring out how things work, and by the time he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1925, he had decided to major in electrical engineering.
He made his first mark in the corporate world in 1933. General Mills was looking for a way to fortify milk with vitamin D. At the time, the only known way to do it involved irradiating the milk with ultraviolet light, but the process was patented by a foundation in Wisconsin. The group wouldn't let General Mills use the process.
General Mills executives had heard about research being conducted in Chicago on a different fortification process. This process used an electrical charge to convert ergosterol -- part of the membrane of fungal cells found in milk -- into vitamin D.
Company officials asked a professor at the University of Minnesota, Clyde Bailey, whether he knew of a student who would be willing to go to Chicago for three days to evaluate the lab tests.
"Some three days and 36 years later, I retired from General Mills," Borchardt wrote.
Borchardt turned the new fortification method from a "laboratory curiosity" to a commercially viable process.
Ball said Borchardt also invented a device that could measure the moisture content of kernels of wheat, a new way of closing cereal bags and a process for treating materials under a high vacuum.
In a brief autobiography he wrote after retiring, Borchardt said he took pride in bucking his corporate bosses when he felt it was necessary. He discussed one research team's work on a piece of equipment used in the production of breakfast cereals like Cheerios.
A worker came up with an idea for increasing the machine's output, so Borchardt decided it was worth pursuing to see whether it would work.
"Two years and $150,000 later my superior passed on to me the word that his superior felt that the time had come to terminate the projects," Borchardt wrote. But Borchardt said his staff thought they were close to a breakthrough, so he stood his ground.
Two months later, the project was a success. At the time he retired, Borchardt said, the company estimated the process was saving it $1 million a year.
His daughter-in-law Mary Borchardt said the family's connection with Cheerios was even life-saving. When her daughter was about 14 months old, she drank part of a bottle of furniture polish.
"We took her to the emergency room to have her stomach pumped, and the doctor said if she hadn't had a good breakfast that morning, she would've died," she said. "Cheerios saved her life."
David Hanners can be reached at [email protected] or 651-228-5551.