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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Open Source Dairying

Tim Berners-Lee is generally credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1990 when he created HTML. That's the programming language that enables hyperlinks connecting one computer file with another (like the one on his name, above). Unlike most inventors, though, Berners-Lee didn't patent and license his software for profit. He gave it away for free. Programmers around the globe immediately adapted and expanded his source code, and soon your computer was effortlessly sharing information with mine.

Since then the most challenging issue facing the Web has not been technological but political. To what degree does digital information belong to its creator, publisher, or consumer? Some organizations advocate locking down information and charging money for access. Many need to do this in order to recoup the money they invested in creating their online product.

But others side with Berners-Lee and claim that "information wants to be free." They allow anyone to see and copy anything. They give away apps they write for cell phones or ebooks they scan and publish. Most consumers, blissfully unaware of these distinctions (or intentionally ignoring them), download whatever they can get their hands on.

A Wisconsin Forerunner

Exactly 100 years before Berners-Lee worked out HTML, a Wisconsin scientist invented the machine which enabled Wisconsin to become the Dairy State. Like Berners-Lee, he refused to patent it. He also refused to protect any of his other discoveries that would benefit mankind. His name was Stephen M. Babcock.

Soon after arriving at the Univ. of Wisconsin in 1887, Babcock (1843-1931) turned his attention to the chemistry of milk. The state's farmers were in the middle of switching from wheat to dairy, and milk was sold wholesale by volume. Skimming off the valuable cream and replacing it with water was a common way to get more money for less milk. And if every farmer received the same price for 100 gallons of milk, regardless of its fat content, then there was no incentive to produce superior or even a consistent quality milk.

Babcock invented a simple device that farmers could use to scientifically measure the fat in their milk. Wholesalers soon began to pay more for milk that had more cream in it. Farmers began to breed only the cows that produced the best milk and improved their herds.

For the first time, consumers could reliably choose milk products with different amounts of fat, such as skim or 2% milk. Within a generation Wisconsin led the nation in milk and cheese production. The "Babcock butterfat tester" was likened to the steam engine and the cotton gin, and all over the world his name became a household word.

Giving It All Away

Babcock could have patented his butterfat tester and licensed the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell it. He would have quickly grown rich. He could have retired from his lab and collected fees and royalties for the rest of his life.

Instead, he intentionally refused to patent it, so that other engineers could freely reproduce, improve, and distribute it. He believed that milk was one of the healthiest things a person could eat, and his goal was to improve people's nutrition and the world's food supply rather than get rich quick.

Babcock continued to go to work every day for the next four decades, walking from his home on Madison's Lake St. to his lab in the University's College of Agriculture. He made other important discoveries and invented other devices, which he also refused to patent. He enthusiastically supported UW football and baseball, and could usually be found in the stands cheering as loudly as the undergraduates.

A reporter visiting a few weeks before his death in 1931 found him "the friendliest, most genial man of his age whom I have ever known" and described at length his infectious laugh. Babcock's life seemed to epitomize the wisdom one occasionally sees on a bumper-sticker, that "The best things in life aren't things."

:: Posted in Odd Lives on June 28, 2012
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