According to information gathered by author Don Wirtchafter, George W. Schlichten had finally accomplished what hundreds of other inventors had failed to do. He had solved an age-old problem and invented a machine (decorticator) that could separate the useful bast fibers from the plant.
Prior to this decorticator, work was tedious in an effort to break, hack, and scutch the tough stalks into shape for spinning yarn – something that increased labour costs by a factor of at least 100. Although the machine could clean the fiber from any plant, hemp was Schlichten’s favourite.
The twenty-foot long decorticator stripped off the green leafy vegetation of the dry stalks and then crushed them through a series of fluted rollers and flappers so that the hurds and woody pith were broken out.
A series of combs and rollers brushed out the short ‘tow’ fibers while the long fibers were massaged enough to degum them. The pectin coatings flaked off and were collected for industrial purposes. The final product, called the ‘sliver’, rolled out the far end of the machine and was ready for spinning into the finest of linens.
Many other inventions also called decoritators were not nearly as efficient as that made by Schlichten. Most of them turned out a mat of fibers that had to be combed to straighten out each fiber, a tedious task.
Schlichten’s machine was able to keep the alignment of the fibers in order and turned out a continuous sliver of hemp that was ready to be spun with existing machinery.
Schlichten was born in Germany in 1862. He had put over $400,000 of his own money into developing the decorticator and needed to find a market where he could recoup some of that investment. In 1916, he took his first production of hemp sliver to the New York Market where it sold for a record price of $100 a ton more than any other fiber had previously. Experts had pronounced it even better than the Italian hemp.
A spinning mill owned by J. D. Rockefeller purchased Schlichten’s entire crop and paid him to supervise spinning the unfamiliar fibers into yarn. The mill was so impressed that they tried to buy exclusive rights to the invention and offered Schlichten half again as much as he really wanted. However, he was not ready to sell out, especially to Rockefellar.
Almost everything that is known about Schlichten comes from a series of twenty-four letters once owned by Edward W. Scripps, but later donated to the Alden Library at Ohio University in Athens.
Scripps founded the United Press Syndicate (later United Press International) as a balance to the right-wing Associated Press. Because of his interest in science, he established research institutions, including the Scripps Institute in San Diego.
Scripps heard about the decorticator from Harry Timken, president of the Timken Roller Bearing Company and one of the leading machinists of his time. After visiting with Schlichten, he was so impressed that he invited him to move his experimentation to the Timken Ranch in Imperial Valley, California.
Schlichten planted 100 acres of hemp and some other experimental crops. By August 1917, the hemp crop, almost ready to harvest, was such a bumper crop that it received national attention. Feature film companies, including Hearst, showed footages of the 14-foot tall plants in their weekly newsreels.
With the US entering WWI, newspapers began facing rising prices because of a shortage of wood pulp and were desparate for an alternative. Schlichten knew he had the answer with the mountains of hurds his machine created and at a fraction of the cost of wood pulp.
Schlichten had to convince a large newspaper syndicate to finance a full-scale run of hemp hurds through existing paper mills and made his presentation on August 3, 1917, at the Scripps Building in San Diego to Milton McRae, Scripp’s partner and Edward Chase, Scripps’ right-hand man.
What he did not know was that his presentation was bugged by McRae’s secretary who transcribed the proceedings. McRae later mailed the 11-page document to Scripps, who dutifully preserved it in his archives.
Schlichten knew his revolutionary invention would be a target of attack for he defended his German name in the very first paragraph. He even went so far as to state he thought it would be a crime to cut down forests for the small percentage of paper that would be produced.
He explained the environmental impact of deforestation and predicted a time when further logging would be prohibitively expensive and even forbidden. All the men involved – McRae, Chase, even Timken and Scripps – were all in favor of proceeding with the project.
However, two weeks later, without explanation, Chase and McRae suddenly reversed their position. The two convinced Timken “beyond a reasonable doubt” that hemp was not economical for making newspapers. McRae then instructed Chase to drop the matter and promised Scripps a full report later, but nothing additional appears in the archives.
Without a backer, Schlichten and his machinery fell into oblivion. Almost a year of research by Don Wirtchafter failed to disclose any details of what happened. Schlichten’s name never appears in any historical records about hemp.
None of the later inventors ever credited Schlichten for his early work and he – and his invention – mysteriously disappeared from recorded history without a trace.
In the late 1930s, as Schlichten’s patents expired, other inventors suddenly came up with decorticators – Anton F. Burkardt, Robert B. Cochrane, Karl Wessel, as well as several others.
These inventions became the basis for the factories built for the Hemp for Victory campaign in 1943, but none of them worked nearly as well as the one made by Schlichten. Soon after WWII ended, the Hemp for Victory technology was shut down.
According to Jack Herer, the invention of the decorticator was a concern to industrialists of the time. It could have revolutionized industry and sparked an economic upheaval similar to that caused by the perfection of the cotton gin a century before.
The power barons feared the rapid advances being made in hemp technology would destabilize their investments in petrochemical- and forest-based economies.
Herer may have one theory wrong, however. The so-called marijuana conspiracy actually started in the 1920s, before the Marijuana Tax Act.
With the discovery of the Schlichten papers, it is clear that repression of his industrial revolution potential makes more sense. Also prior to the discovery of the Schlichten papers, the earliest known practical decorticators were those patented by Anton Burkardt and Robert Cochrane in 1936, just prior to the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937.
These inventions could not have been the motivation behind Hearst’s yellow journalism or Harry Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana. Instead, the more likely theory also includes Hearst’s hatred for Mexicans (see History of Hemp under 1920s and 1930s)
George Schlichten died a broken man in Solona, California, on February 3, 1923.
Although there are now millions of people all over the world advocating the reintroduction of hemp farming, it will do little good unless someone develops the technology needed to harvest and process the crops.
Schlichten did leave eight pages of drawings with his first patent and another page in his second and considered his work no secret.
A publication of a preliminary article in the April 1994 issue of High Times Magazine has sparked a movement of engineers who are determined to recreate Schlichten’s work.