The Babcock butterfat test, developed at the University of Wisconsin, provided a simple, accurate, and inexpensive way to assess milk quality and to pay farmers accordingly. By improving standards and rewarding the best milk producers, the Babcock butterfat test transformed the dairy industry in the United States and set Wisconsin firmly on the path to becoming America’s Dairy State.

Change in a Cheese Box

Seldom has such a transformative technology arrived in such an unassuming package. This Babcock tester was built inside a standard, 16-inch diameter cheese box. There is no manufacturer’s information, either on the tester or on the printed instructions tacked to the inside of the lid. Aside from the central shaft and a few nails and bolts, it has no metal parts. The simple construction techniques would have required little investment and no specialized manufacturing tools.

The almost “do it yourself” quality of this Babcock tester reflects Stephen Babcock’s desire to share his work freely, for the benefit of the dairy industry. Babcock refused to patent his invention, preferring that any interested parties could build, use, modify or share it without facing a financial barrier.

A local manufacturer most likely built this example soon after the test was introduced in 1890 and before cheap metal versions were widely available. It may even have been made by a farmer himself, eager to take advantage of the new technology. Commercial manufacturers, however, soon seized the opportunity Babcock left them. Within just a few years, companies all over the country were producing a wide variety of types and styles of testers, from two-flask designs that clamped on tables to enclosed, cast-iron models spinning 36 flasks by steam power.

Listen below to the Babcock Butterfat Tester’s segment on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life.

Want to learn more about the Babcock Butterfat Tester? Watch this video from Professor Emeritus David L. Nelson (Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Written by David Driscoll, December 2013

Object courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
(Wisconsin Historical Museum object 1948.567,A-D.)

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