Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2379

by Andrew Boyd

Today, Mr. Spud. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

He was a man satisfied with life. “I got everything I need,” he once said. “A big slaughterhouse. A construction and trucking company. The biggest and most modern cheese plant [west] of the Mississippi.” But he was best known for his potato empire.

J. R. Simplot was the 89th richest man in America in 2007 — worth over three and a half billion dollars. Quite amazing for a kid who quit school at 14 to make his fortune in rural Idaho. His business plan? “[Do] any damn thing I could to make a livin’ at.”

J. R. Simplot portrait

Simplot’s first venture was raising hogs. He bought them cheap, fattened them with a mix of potatoes and meat from wild animals he’d hunt, then sold them. Simplot pocketed $7000. “That made me,” he’d recount many years later. “That made me.”

Simplot was off and running. With the money from the hogs he leased a small farm, growing onions and potatoes. Little by little, business grew. Simplot discovered a prune drying machine on a trip to Southern California. He bought one, learned to dry vegetables, then shipped 500,000 pounds of dried, processed onion to Chicago. He was a millionaire.

At age 32, Simplot owned 33 potato warehouses and was the largest potato shipper in the West. But even bigger things lay ahead. Just after the Second World War a chemist working for Simplot asked for a freezer so he could practice freezing potatoes and other vegetables. Refrigerator-freezers were just starting to be mass produced. The chemist saw it as a good business opportunity. Simplot’s response? “Hell, if you freeze spuds [they’ll] go to mush.” But the chemist got his freezer anyway. A few months later Simplot sampled his first frozen French fries. He liked what he tasted. A few more months later and Simplot owned a giant cold-storage facility as he charged headlong into frozen foods.

Years later, Simplot would make a deal to supply frozen French fries to an up and coming restaurant known as McDonald’s. Today, almost every French fry consumed in the U.S. comes from a frozen potato.

Simplot didn’t stop with frozen potatoes. He invested in ranches, feedlots, mining, fertilizer, and more. He even invested a million dollars in a couple of engineers working in the basement of a dentist’s office in Boise. They went on to found Micron Technology — one of the world’s largest manufacturers of computer chips. Still, the potato always held a special place for the man affectionately known as Mr. Spud.

Simplot passed away in May 2008 at age 99. He was a successful wheeler-dealer in a time and place that rewarded wheeler-dealers. He had his foibles. But he also looked for opportunity, trusted his instincts, and did business with a handshake. He was a pioneer. He was one of the last of his generation. And … his name will forever be linked with that humble tuber — the potato.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

C. J. Hadley. “Mr. Spud.” Range Magazine, Summer, 1998. Accessed June 2, 2008.

All of the quotations are taken from the article “Mr. Spud.”

D. Martin. "J. R. Simplot, farmer who developed first frozen French fries, dies at 99." New York Times, May 28, 2008. Accessed June 2, 2008.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.