News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 5, 2010

Created in Terre Haute, history of iconic Coca-Cola bottle clouded



‘What is Coke made of?’

On the morning of June 28, 1915, Earl picked up the phone in the Root Glass mold shop, where he was the foreman and bottle designer. Owner Chapman J. Root summoned Earl to his office. There, Earl found Root, Samuelson and Edwards, along with the company’s sales manager and secretary. Root explained that Coca-Cola had invited 30 glass companies to submit a “new and distinctive” design for its bottle.

Whoever creates the winning design would get a “leather medal,” Root joked.

During the meeting, Samuelson asked, in his thick Swedish accent, “What is Coca-Cola made of?” (That question, Norman Dean concluded, marked Samuelson’s only contribution to the process.) As owner of a major Coca-Cola bottle supplier, Root knew the primary ingredients were extracts of the coca leaf and kola nuts. But Root and the others had no idea what coca leaves or kola nuts looked like. So Root sent Edwards and Dean to the Emeline Fairbanks Library in a car driven by his chauffeur. Their mission was to find a picture of the Coca-Cola contents.

The choice of Earl Dean was obvious, the book explains, because he was Root’s bottle designer. Edwards, a former schoolteacher, was likely sent, too, because he knew his way around libraries.

Earl and the auditor found no depiction of coca leaves or kola nuts in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But on Page 628 they spotted a “cocoa” tree branch, bearing pods. The entry says cocoa seeds produce a beverage “fit for the gods.” Those pods caught their attention. Edwards asked Earl if he could design a bottle based on the cocoa pods, and Earl said he could.

Because the encyclopedia couldn’t be checked out at the library, Earl had to sketch a bottle incorporating the pod into its bulging middle, with 10 long ribs running down to the base. (In an odd twist of fate, the plant used as a basis for the bottle — cocoa — is not the same as coca, and is not an ingredient in Coca-Cola. Statements made by the men involved, reviewed by Norman Dean, indicate they never realized the historic error.)

Once back at the glass factory, Dean showed his drawing to Root. He then learned from his boss — it was Monday — that the project had a seemingly impossible deadline. A prototype of the bottle had to be produced before noon Wednesday, when a strict plant union rule would force a daylong, end-of-the-month cleaning of the glass holding tanks. The task was called a “fire out.”

Root asked Earl if he could beat the deadline. “Well, I’ll do the best I can,” he answered. Root responded, “That’s fine, Earl. That’s fine.”

In less than two days, Earl R. Dean turned his pencil drawings into a glass model of the planet’s most familiar product. At one point, Earl worked 22 hours straight. He crafted a mold out of a block of cast iron, shaping the two halves with a surface grinder and lathe, and a hammer and chisel. By 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, he and the mold shop crew produced a dozen prototype bottles.

Earl beat the deadline. Later that summer, his design was overwhelmingly selected by the Coca-Cola judging committee.

Later, Dean narrowed the bulge in the bottle’s midsection and widened the base to make it more stable on a conveyer belt, the book explains.

The contour bottle royalties earned Root Glass 5 cents per gross of Coca-Cola, and Chapman J. Root became the wealthiest man in Indiana. He offered Earl a choice of a $500 bonus or a lifetime job. Earl, a loyal company guy who started working for Root Glass at age 14, chose the latter. But Root left the glass container industry in 1932, and Earl wound up working for the firm that moved into the plant — Owens-Illinois.

The two men admired each other.

Earl never sought, nor expected, fame or fortune for having designed the Coke bottle. “Earl was a very modest person,” said Zabowski. “It wasn’t he didn’t care about his family. It’s just that he didn’t think it was that important, because he’d designed hundreds of bottles.” Earl was, though, surprised to learn in 1971 that his former plant superintendent, Alexander Samuelson, was instead widely regarded as the bottle’s inventor.

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