Chewing Gum

Improved Chewing-Gum, US patent 98304, granted to William Finley Semple, 1869. Image source: Patent #: US000098304 by the United States Patent and Trademark Office is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

William Finley Semple (1832-1923), of Mount Vernon, got the first United States Patent on chewing gum in 1869. Semple's process involved dissolving vegetable gums in naphtha and alcohol until they reached the consistency of jelly. Then he mixed in powdered chalk, powdered licorice root, and other materials to provide texture and flavor. Those included sugar, orris root, and myrrh. Finally, he evaporated the solvents -- naphtha and alcohol -- so that the jelly-like material dried and hardened. Semple thought that people would buy the gum not just to chew for fun, but to help keep their teeth clean and breath fresh. The chalk would have a scouring effect in rubbing away food particles and dental plaque, the sticky film that forms on teeth and causes tooth decay and gum disease.

A Sapodilla tree trunk in a Yucatán forest (trunk is approximately 1-meter in diameter). Diagonal scars across trunk are the results of previous tapping for Chicle. Image source: Sapodilla-bark.jpg by Jim Conrad (website and article) is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Another Ohioan, Dr. Edward E. Beeman, gave the world one of the most popular kinds of chewing gum. Consumers today buy millions of dollars worth of Beeman's Pepsin Chewing Gum each year. Dr. Beeman was selling bottles of powdered pepsin, which people took to aid to digestion. Pepsin is an enzyme found naturally in the stomach that breaks down proteins. Nellie Horton, Dr. Beeman's bookkeeper, suggested that he put the pepsin into gum "since so many people buy pepsin for digestion and gum for no reason at all." He blended his pepsin compound with chicle, a natural substance obtained from the sapodilla tree, which is used in chewing gum. He sold the gum in a wrapper that showed the picture of a pig and carried the slogan, "With Pepsin, You Can Eat Like A Pig." The gum sold even better after a businessman bought the company and replaced the pig with a wrapper showing Dr. Beeman's kindly bearded face.

Who Dunnit? Who Really Dunnit?
Who "invented" chewing gum? Does Ohioan William F. Semple really deserve the credit? Or should credit go to other individuals – maybe John B. Curtis who in 1848 sold the first commercial chewing gum in the United States. It was made from tree sap and called "State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum." What about Thomas Adams, who in 1871 patented the chewing gum that people now spend about $2 billion a year on. Adams’ recipe also used chicle, along with sugar and sassafras flavoring. Chicle gave gum the right chewing properties, and eliminated the harsh taste and unpleasant texture in Semple's gum. His Chiclets, those little chunks of gum with a hard sugar coating, are still best-sellers. Adams also invented the first machine for mass producing gum.

People had been chewing gum for thousands of years before inventors like William F. Semple, John B. Curtis, or Thomas Adams lived. The ancient Greeks munched on chewed mastic gum, or mastiche, (pronounced "mas-tee-ka"). They made it with sticky resin obtained from the bark of the mastic plant, a shrub-like tree. The ancient Maya chewed sapodilla tree sap – the same chicle used in modern chewing gum. Humans probably always have had the urge to chew to keep their mouths moist when no water was available, or, psychologists think, because it brings back memories of nursing when they were infants.

Ohio can claim credit for an invention with global impact because Semple got the first patent on chewing gum. It was U. S. patent 93,304, issued on December 28, 1869. A patent is a document, granted by the government, which gives the inventor right -- for a limited period -- to stop others from making, using, or selling the invention without the inventor’s permission. Patents cover products or processes that work in new ways or have new features. They involve how things work, what they do, how they do it, what they are made of, and how they are made.

A patent officially makes an invention the inventor's property. Like any other kind of property, the inventor can sell the patent to someone else or "rent" it. Renting out a patent is called "licensing" it. The owner charges a fee – a royalty – for others to use the patent so they can make and sell a product.

Remember that a patent doesn’t automatically stop others from using the invention. It just gives an inventor the right to sue others who do, in a so-called "patent infringement" suit.

Semple's patent became a milestone in chewing gum history, an official record of his role. Because it was the first for chewing gum, the patent makes it convenient for people to identify Semple as chewing gum’s inventor. We don’t know if other chewing gum pioneers ever paid Semple royalties to use ideas in U. S. Patent 93,304.

Inventors often tweak the technology in an existing patent, making changes and improvements that allow them to get their own patent. The huge majority of new patents granted each year are for small improvements in existing technology. In science and technology, the wheels of progress turn a fraction of an inch at a time, and innovation usually is evolution rather than revolution.

Fun Factoids About Chewing Gum

  • The American colonists chewed the gum-like sap or resin that oozes out of cuts in the bark of spruce trees. Native Americans chewed that gum for as long as anyone could remember. People later chewed paraffin wax sweetened with sugar and honey.
  • Modern chewing gum emerged from a flop. American inventor Thomas Adams tried for a whole year to use chicle as a substitute for rubber in waterproof boots, rainwear, and toys. Adams was frustrated when the experiments failed, and ready to toss the remaining chicle into the East River in New York City. Then a chance visit to a drug store and a little girl gave him that flash of inspiration.
  • ABC gum (Already Been Chewed) has legendary properties as a quick fix-it for all kinds of emergency repairs that demand sticky material. Anecdotes tell of people using it to repair everything from broken dishware to the hydraulic lines in airplanes.
  • Wrigley’s gum got its start when William Wrigley Jr. offered Chicago merchants free chewing gum with each can of his baking powder. The gum became more popular than the baking power. In 1893 he started selling two of the most popular gums in history -- Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum.
  • Chewing gum was originally made from the natural gum chicle, found in the sapodilla tree. Chicle is expensive, however, and other natural gums and chewy synthetic materials also are used in gum today.
  • If you think gum is a trivial product, chew on this: Americans buy more than $2 billion worth of chewing gum each year.
  • Dr. Grandma and Dr. Mom were wrong about chewing gum. It won’t necessarily ruin your teeth. Studies have shown that chewing sugarless gum sweetened with xylitol has an antibacterial action. It fights bacteria that cause tooth decay. Gum also increases the flow of saliva, which dilutes acid produced by bacteria. Saliva also contains calcium and phosphorous minerals that can help to repair soft spots in tooth enamel, actually healing early tooth decay.
  • People chew gum only one tiny stick at a time, but companies make it by the ton. Check out the Wrigley manufacturing process online