Biography of Thomas Adams, American Inventor

Adams Chiclet Company
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Thomas Adams (May 4, 1818–February 7, 1905) was an American inventor. In 1871, he patented a machine that could mass produce chewing gum from chicle. Adams later worked with businessman William Wrigley, Jr. to establish the American Chicle Company, which experienced great success in the chewing gum industry.

Fast Facts: Thomas Adams

Known For: Adams was an American inventor who founded the chewing gum industry.

Born: May 4, 1818 in New York, New York

Died: February 7, 1905 in New York, New York

Early Life

Thomas Adams was born on May 4, 1818. He dabbled in various trades—including glassmaking—before eventually becoming a photographer.

Experiments With Chicle

During the 1850s, Adams was living in New York and working as a secretary for Antonio de Santa Anna. The Mexican general was in exile, living with Adams in his Staten Island home. Adams noticed that Santa Anna liked to chew the gum of the Manilkara tree, which was known as chicle. (Such natural products had been used as chewing gum for thousands of years by groups such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Aztecs. In North America, chewing gum had long been used by Native Americans, from whom British settlers eventually adopted the practice. Later, businessman and inventor John B. Curtis became the first person to sell gum commercially. His gum was made from a sweetened parrafin wax.)

It was Santa Anna who suggested that the unsuccessful but inventive photographer Adams experiment with chicle from Mexico. Santa Anna felt that chicle could be used to make a synthetic rubber tire. Santa Anna had friends in Mexico who would be able to supply the product cheaply to Adams.

Before turning to making chewing gum, Thomas Adams first tried to turn chicle into synthetic rubber products. At the time, natural rubber was expensive; a synthetic alternative would have been extremely useful to many manufacturers and would have guaranteed its inventor great wealth. Adams attempted to make toys, masks, rain boots, and bicycle tires out of the chicle from Mexican sapodilla trees, but every experiment failed.

According to a 1944 speech given by Adams' grandson Horatio at a banquet for the American Chicle Company, Adams became disheartened by his failure to use chicle as a rubber substitute. He felt that he had wasted about a year's worth of work. One day, Adams noticed a girl buying White Mountain paraffin wax chewing gum for a penny at the corner drugstore. He recalled that chicle was used as chewing gum in Mexico and thought this would be a way to use his surplus chicle. Adams proposed to prepare an experimental batch, which the pharmacist at the drugstore had agreed to sample:

"When Mr. Thomas Adams arrived home that night, he spoke to his son, Tom Jr., my father, about his idea. Junior was very much impressed and suggested that they make up a few boxes of chicle chewing gum and give it a name and a label. He offered to take it out on one of his trips (he was a salesman in wholesale tailors' trimmings and traveled as far west as the Mississippi)."

Chewing Gum

In 1869, Adams was inspired to turn his surplus stock into chewing gum by adding flavoring to the chicle. Shortly after, he opened the world's first chewing gum factory. In February 1871, Adams New York Gum went on sale in drug stores for a penny a piece. The gumballs came in wrappers of different colors in a box with a picture of New York's City Hall on the cover. The venture was such a success that Adams was driven to design a machine that could mass produce the gum, allowing him to fill larger orders. He received a patent for this device in 1871.

According to "The Encyclopedia of New York City," Adams sold his original gum with the slogan "Adams' New York Gum No. 1 -- Snapping and Stretching." In 1888, a new Adams chewing gum called Tutti-Frutti became the first gum to be sold in a vending machine. The machines were located in New York City subway stations and also sold other varieties of Adams gum. Adams' products proved to be very popular, much more so than the existing gum products on the market, and he quickly dominated his competitors. His company debuted "Black Jack" (a licorice-flavored gum) in 1884 and Chiclets (named after chicle) in 1899.

Adams merged his company with other gum manufacturers from the United States and Canada in 1899 to form the American Chicle Company, of which he was the first chairman. Other companies that merged into it included W.J. White and Son, Beeman Chemical Company, Kisme Gum, and S.T. Briton. The rising popularity of chewing gum in the decades that followed led scientists to develop new synthetic versions; nevertheless, some old-fashioned chicle varieties are still manufactured and sold today.

Death

Adams eventually stepped down from his leadership position at the American Chicle Company, though he remained on the board of directors into his late 80s. He died on February 7, 1905, in New York.

Legacy

Adams was not the inventor of chewing gum. Nevertheless, his invention of a device for mass producing chewing gum, along with his efforts to promote it, gave birth to the chewing gum industry in the United States. One of his products—Chiclets, first introduced in 1900—is still sold around the world today. In 2018, chewing gum sales totaled about $4 billion in the United States.

The American Chicle Company was purchased by a pharmaceutical company in 1962. In 1997, the company was renamed Adams in honor of its founder; it is currently owned by the confectionery conglomerate Cadbury, which is based in England.

Sources

  • Dulken, Stephen Van. "American Inventions: a History of Curious, Extraordinary, and Just Plain Useful Patents." New York University Press, 2004.
  • McCarthy, Meghan. "Pop!: the Invention of Bubble Gum." Simon & Schuster, 2010.
  • Segrave, Kerry. "Chewing Gum in America, 1850-1920: the Rise of an Industry." McFarland & Co., 2015.