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A juicy story | MIT Technology Review

Morse in 1967.


Morse’s timing was, of course, inopportune. The year he graduated, Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany, and by 1935 it had become clear to Morse that war was inevitable. He returned to the United States and found employment with Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, where he researched ways to make color films, among other things. At the time, Kodak and General Mills jointly owned a subsidiary called Distillation Products, Inc. (DPI) which used vacuum technology to produce high potency vitamin concentrates from vegetable oils and fish liver. (Kodak had gotten into the vacuum cleaner business with the goal of removing gases from film cartridges to extend shelf life, then looked for other applications.) He became fascinated with vacuum cleaners while working with Kenneth Hickman of DPI, a leading expert on the subject.

But Morse became frustrated with the slow pace of research at a large firm, and on April 1, 1940, he resigned. “No one believed it!” said Ken. Rochester was a corporate town and no one gave up a job at Kodak. But Richard was serious, despite resigning on April Fool’s Day. He returned to Boston and started a technology development company called National Research Corporation (NRC). He eventually settled in Kendall Square, just down the street from his alma mater.

NRC quickly found uses for vacuum technology, including removing impurities from metals and making powdered drugs. Morse’s expertise also caught the eye of former MIT Vice President Vannevar Bush, EGD 1916, head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which President Roosevelt had created at Bush’s urging. in 1941 to prepare the country for war. Bush asked Morse to help him develop a vacuum pump of unprecedented power, a component needed to build the atomic bomb. “I heard my dad say later that he thought Van had lost his mind. There was no way to have such vacuums!” says Ken Morse. But perseverance paid off: in collaboration with DPI and Westinghouse, the NRC designed and built the vacuum cleaners needed for the uranium separation process for the Manhattan Project.

Although consumer acceptance of frozen food was established, Minute Maid did not want to repeat the mistake NRC had made with coffee. She therefore recruited a professional to market the frozen orange juice concentrate.

During this time, Morse also turned his attention to life at home – to be precise, the breakfast table. His first foray into the food industry, shortly after founding NRC, was instant coffee. As Ken Morse recalls, other companies had tried to powder coffee by boiling the water, but the flavor was lost. By vacuum-sealing the coffee, NRC scientists were able to lower its boiling point so that the water evaporated before the coffee reached a temperature that destroyed its flavor. Richard Morse and his scientists – whom Ken describes as “tech-savvy guys with their thin little ties and white shirts” – went to local supermarkets to sell their new product.

NRC employees were talented scientists, but their people skills were a bit raw. Buyers thought freeze-dried coffee lacked the flavor of regular coffee, and researchers had limited success in persuading them to make the switch. In the 1960s, Maxwell House made instant coffee a pantry staple, but the NRC lacked the marketing prowess to get its version off the ground.

While the coffee project did not bear fruit, another food processing business proved to be a resounding success. The US Army wanted to send powdered orange juice overseas to troops fighting in World War II. And Morse was convinced that orange powder produced by vacuum dehydration had great commercial potential. He bet it would taste better and sell better than canned orange juice, whose flavor was compromised by the heat required for pasteurization.

So the NRC set out to perfect a two-step technique, first concentrating and then pulverizing the juice. Ken Morse and other members of the NRC family served as test subjects for early juice experiments. At first, his father tried to be nice to citrus growers by using less popular fruits like tangerines and grapefruits, but Ken remembers the results of those early trials as “dismal failures.” Once the NRC focused on a successful process, Morse set up a subsidiary called Florida Foods – which was later renamed Minute Maid – to produce powdered orange juice. But the war ended before the military shipped any to the troops, so the company instead focused on finding a domestic market for its frozen concentrate.

Although consumer acceptance of frozen food was established, Minute Maid did not want to repeat the mistake NRC had made with coffee. So he took advantage of the growing popularity of television and hired a professional to market the concentrate. One of the friendliest people in the entertainment industry, Bing Crosby signed on to help and continued to voice — and often appear in — commercials that aired throughout the 1970s.