Forgoing medical school, his work led to a sweet treat instead
It is with a heavy heart that I pen my column this week with the news of the passing on Jan. 29 of a little heralded but none-theless great American inventor, Ira “Bob” Born.
The son of a Russian immigrant, Born began his life in New York City on Sept. 29, 1924 but shortly thereafter moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Born graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in engineering physics. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served as a radar specialist and a lieutenant on a destroyer in the Pacific. Later, the Navy sent him to the University of Arizona and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for graduate work in math and physics.
Following his service, Born applied to medical school and was accepted, but while he was waiting for classes to begin, he went to work at his father’s company, Just Born in Bethlehem. And that’s when this story really starts.
One of Just Born’s products, first introduced to the public in 1953, was a hand-made marshmallow confection. When Born started work at his father’s company, it took 27 hours to make just one of these treats. Born, an inventor at heart, used his engineering skills to create a machine that mechanized the marshmallow candy’s forming process, reducing the time it took to make one sweet to just six minutes.
This innovation allowed the company to mass-produce the confection, increasing its availability to the general public and sending its popularity soaring. Today, using the same recipe it started with 70 years ago and pretty much the same machine Born invented, Just Born makes an average of 5.5 million pieces of this marshmallow sugary-goodness a day. That’s roughly 2 billion a year or enough to circle the globe twice and then some.
My relationship with Just Born’s candy began when I was about 5 years old. My grandmother took me shopping at Kroger’s grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky. She let me help pull boxes containing 10 of Just Born’s sweets off the shelf and put them into our cart. When we got home, she let me carry the bag of boxes into the house. I felt very grown up.
Once home, grandma lifted me onto the kitchen counter, set the boxes in front of me and handed me a knife. She instructed me to carefully poke holes in the boxes so air could get in and then she put them all on top of the refrigerator. There they sat for about a month until they were, well, stale but, according to my grandmother “just right.” To this day, I still prefer them “just right.”
Born never did go to medical school. He opted instead to stay at his father’s company and assumed its presidency in 1959. He retired to Florida 30 years later leaving behind a sweet legacy.
I introduced my own daughter to Just Born’s marshmallow candy when she was 5. I took her to Raley’s and just as my grandmother had allowed me to do, I let her load several boxes into our cart and carry the bag inside when we got home.
It was raining that day as it had been for several days and in an attempt to entertain my curious kid, we began experimenting with the candy. We plopped one in a cup of water, another in a glass of milk and a third in a cup of cold coffee just to see what would happen. We counted how many “chews” it took to eat one. We gave part of one to our dog, whose name coincidently enough was “Sweetie,” and laughed and laughed at how she kept poking her tongue in and out of her mouth trying to manage the stickiness. And, finally, we put one on a plate in the microwave and watched in giggling, hand-clapping delight as it ballooned to about five times its original size. This, by far, was the best of the experiments and has become something of an annual spring tradition in our home.
It doesn’t matter that my daughter is 25 years past being 5. It doesn’t matter that we know how the experiment will turn out. Microwaving Peeps remains our favorite Easter entertainment and for that, we thank Ira “Bob” Born, the “Father of Peeps.”
And so, with his passing five days ago, I felt it was only right to honor his life and the joy his invention has made possible for us and so many others by saying, “Thank you Mr. Born and … may you Rest in Peeps.”