Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/April 1904/The Influence of Liebig on the Development of Chemical Industries




THE chemical industry is a child of the nineteenth century. The inorganic branch, the so-called industry of heavy chemicals, such as the manufacture of sulphuric acid in lead chambers, the manufacture of nitric acid, of hydrochloric acid, of sulphate, the manufacture of soda according to Le Blanc's process, the manufacture of chlorine and bleaching powder according to the processes of Deacon and Weldon, was already in operation in the first part of the nineteenth century, while the organic branch of the industry, the manufacture of coal-tar products, of the organic intermediary products, of the aniline and alizarine dyestuffs, pharmaceutical and photographic preparations, the artificial sweeteners and artificial perfumes, and the whole crowned by the synthesis and manufacture of indigo on a large scale, became known only in the latter part of the last century.

As Liebig's influence on the education of chemists and on the chemical industries was chiefly exercised during the time he lived in Giessen, that is until about 1860, and as this influence became of course perceptible only very gradually and slowly, it is evident that the organic chemical industries owe most of their progress to Liebig, and therefore I shall devote my remarks chiefly to a description of this influence.

As every branch of industry is originally the result of empirical research, it is very rare for men of great scientific knowledge to become the founders of any new industry. We find that almost invariably energetic and enterprising merchants, who possess some technical skill, are at the head of such undertakings; and thus we find at the beginning merchants as managers of the factories of the organic chemical industries. Scientific research pointed out the direction in which the gold fields were to be discovered, and enterprising and energetic men marched on the road indicated to the unknown regions, provided with the simplest tools, to uncover the golden treasures and to free them from the gangue which hid them from the view of mankind. This was the case with the first works for the distillation of tar, as well as with the coal-tar color factories. Tar was not distilled and split up into its various component parts according to principles which were founded on rational and exact chemical research, the different hydrocarbons thus obtained were not nitrated, reduced, sulphonated, condensed, etc., in order to be converted into intermediary products and dyestuffs by processes discovered by the scientific investigator. These operations were executed by the rule of thumb, by men who had been engaged in kindred industries, in metallurgical works, in dyehouses, or in pharmacies or drug houses. These men worked in mere sheds, with vessels which for the most part were taken from the kitchen. There were no chemists; there were no laboratories. If it became necessary to analyze the inorganic crude materials which were used in the manufacture, it was done in a remote dark corner of the factory by so-called chemists, who were only educated in analytical schools. Instant dismissal was the penalty at that time imposed upon any chemist who dared to enter any of the rooms where the manufacturing was going on, to try to familiarize himself with the processes for the preparation of various products. The supervision was exercised by so-called practical men, who were ignorant even of the simplest principles of scientific chemistry, who derived their methods for the manufacture from mechanical experiments and who kept the formulae a deep secret, just as the alchemists concealed their receipts for the art of making gold.

Meanwhile Liebig had shown by his work in the laboratory in the quiet and far-away Giessen, by lectures and publications, what important treasures could be found in all branches of agriculture and industry by scientifically educated chemists well trained in laboratory methods, in analyses and syntheses of chemical bodies. He had shown that a knowledge of general chemistry and of its scientific principles and practical methods enabled men to advance all branches of the industries.

Liebig's staff of excellent pupils made their way to all quarters of the globe to disseminate his ideas and to assist agriculture and the industries. The light of scientific research kindled by Liebig penetrated all branches of industry. It pierced into the darkest factory rooms which were guarded with many secret locks, and more and more the truth of Liebig's teaching became recognized, that agriculture and the industries would accomplish undreamed of results, if scientifically educated chemists were employed in all branches and were permitted to exercise control of all methods.

In consequence thereof we now see that these large factories, devoted to the chemical industries which have drawn into their circle the manufacture of all the heavy chemicals, the production of the intermediary products from the distillation of wood and coal-tar, the finished materials being aniline and alizarine dye-stuffs, indigo, pharmaceutical and photographic products, artificial sweeteners and artificial perfumes, are managed exclusively by scientific chemists. The practical man was forced to yield to the well-educated theoretical man.

Laboratories in which are to be found all the modern apparatus and implements of science and technique have taken the place of the dark cellars in which chemists were formerly imprisoned; magnificent libraries are at the disposal of the investigating chemist of the works, and everywhere Liebig's spirit rules and everywhere Liebig's methods are practised.

How much importance the German chemical industry attaches to the exclusive employment of scientific men, how these are educated at the universities and polytechnics, and what means are employed to maintain the scientific standard of the chemist, all that I had the honor of pointing out in a lecture, delivered seven years ago during my first visit to the United States before the New York Section of the Society of Chemical Industry. Meanwhile the number of chemists employed in our German factories has not only increased considerably, but we have also raised the requirements in the education of chemists whom we employ in our factories and laboratories. Where seven years ago, as I then stated, our factory, the Farbenfabriken vorm. Friedr. Bayer & Co. at Elberfeld, had only one hundred chemists, educated at German universities or high schools, we have now over 160 in our employ.

A systematic organization, founded on a scientific basis, encircles our works. No effort is omitted to bring to the notice of all the chemists every advance of science, so that they may utilize it for the benefit of our factory, and every new technical method is at once thoroughly investigated in order thus to gain new knowledge and create new products.

The details of such an organization are most interesting. The control of all raw materials, delivered at the works by water or rail and of all the intermediary products, are carried out by a central laboratory, which is devoted to analytical chemistry exclusively. In this laboratory a large force of analytical specialists is employed. Here are analyzed not only products which are bought by us, but also intermediary products which are furnished by one department of our works to another, and the exchange of goods within our factory is carried out by contracts which are concluded between the various departments. The analytical methods which are to be used and the conditions of the contracts are perhaps more stringent than if the material had been purchased from outside factories. When no analyctical methods exist, as is frequently the case with new products, it is the task of the analytical laboratory to devise such methods, and the work demanded of our analysts is just as important and difficult as the task of any other chemist in our employ. Our analytical chemists must have the same scientific education as the others, and we consider them in position and rank on a par with any other chemist.

The manufacturing is of course in the hands of first-class chemists. The factory is divided into different departments. At the head of each department one of the most experienced chemists is placed as department chief, and he manages his section as a factory in itself. Thus our works are divided into the inorganic department, the departments for intermediary organic products, for aniline colors, for alizarine colors and the pharmaceutical department.

Each of these departments consists of a number of separate divisions which are again under the management of chemists, all of whom we have trained ourselves. The chemists of the different divisions belonging to one department have a joint laboratory whence they conduct the various manufactures, their main object being economical production and good yields. Each step of the reaction is continually watched analytically, and thousands upon thousands of experiments are constantly carried out to improve the processes and above all the quality of the manufactured products. These chemists have also charge of the machinery used in their departments, and a scientific engineer acts in conjunction with them.

Commercially educated employees control the consumption of chemicals of all kinds in each department, and based on their figures, and the figures of the consumption of water, gas, steam, ice, compressed and rarified air, etc., used in the processes, exact calculations are made for each product monthly. Furthermore, there are scientific laboratories, one for inorganic chemistry, another for coal-tar colors of the benzine and naphthaline series, a third for those of the alizarine and anthraquinone groups, another for pharmaceutical and photographic products. In these laboratories all reactions which seem to be of technical importance and which have been described in scientific and technical journals are tested as to the value. All the patents, issued in the various countries, are studied and their processes executed on a small scale. The new products which appear in the market are analyzed and investigated in order to determine their constitution and their practical value and to ascertain whether they can be utilized in the manufacture of any new products. It is further the duty of the heads of these scientific laboratories to inform not only the chemists who are working under them, but also the other works chemists, of everything new in chemistry, scientific as well as technical, and regular meetings are held, where reports are made on all new discoveries and publications.

The finished products of each department, both the coloring matters and the pharmaceutical and photographic products, are tested as to their efficiency in laboratories especially equipped for the purpose. The controlling laboratory for coloring matters is provided with all the machinery and apparatus used in first-class print works and dye houses. Here the coloring matters are practically applied, and it is ascertained whether they come up to the requirements or not, and only when their standard has been determined are they permitted to leave the factory, A very important part of the work of these control or testing laboratories consists in examining the many new products which are the results of the investigations of the scientific laboratories, as to their usefulness, and to find new methods of application for the older products.

As the colors are tested in the dye laboratory, so the pharmaceutical products are investigated in the pharmacological laboratory, at the head of which we have at our Elberfeld works a prominent representative of this science, who was a teacher of pharmacology and physiology at the University of Göttingen. His assistants comprise four physicians and two bacteriologists who are constantly carrying out animal experiments on frogs, rabbits, cats, dogs, etc.

It will be seen therefore that scientific and systematic research has in Germany taken the place of empirical experiments. Although every chemist is a specialist in his own branch, he is enabled to find his way in any other special line of chemistry on account of his thorough general education and the constant accessions to his knowledge.

We should never have reached and would surely not have been able to maintain the high standing which the German chemical industry holds in the world now-a-days, unless this scientific bent of mind, which seems to be a particular quality of the German national character, had governed our work.

As I did seven years ago, so I have this time taken a four weeks' trip through this beautiful country, and have seen many of the American industries. Owing to the extraordinary hospitality and courtesy of the inhabitants of all the cities visited, we have been allowed to inspect almost all the great branches of American industry. Aside from the various and magnificent textile works of the south and the east, we have seen the largest steel works and iron foundries, refineries of petroleum, glass factories, factories for all kinds of electrical appliances and machinery; and of the chemical factories we have visited some of those engaged in the production of heavy chemicals, factories of the organic chemical industry and especially those of the electrochemical industry.

It may perhaps be of interest to learn what impression your industries made on a fellow chemist, not only at his first visit, but also during the present one, and I shall not hesitate to give frankly my impartial opinion.

At first sight it alarms us Germans when we observe what tremendous natural resources this country possesses—the wealth of lumber in your forests, the fertility of your soil, the mountains, the extent of the plains and valleys—all natural storehouses of great riches. If a hole is drilled or a drift is made in the mountains in some of the states, natural gas or petroleum is found; in another the finest of anthracite coal or soft coal, which furnishes the best material for coking and distillation; in a third state we find ores of every description; in a fourth salt, or sulphur; in a fifth, deposits of phosphates which are of so much importance in agriculture, while in some of them we find a collection of nearly all these products.

This is not the case in Germany. We are not blessed with natural gas or petroleum; anthracite coal is very rare. We have immense soft coal fields, but we must go down to a depth of two to three thousand feet, whereas in America it is at the surface, or in the very worst cases a depth of only three hundred feet must be penetrated. We have minerals, but not in such masses as here, and above all they are not of that purity which facilitates metallurgical processes. Only of salt have we as much as you, and more as far as potash salts are concerned, of which we have immense fields in Stassfurt. While with us the water in rivers flows gently and softly, and even for navigation our rivers need to be constantly dredged, you have in your grand country natural water courses such as are found in no other land in this world. In addition to this, your rivers rush down high mountains, so that every stream can be made a tributary to the industries. The millions of horse-power which are available in Niagara Falls, and have been partly utilized, give your country a decided superiority over all others.

But in spite of these natural advantages Germany has remained the ruling power in chemical industries, and I may venture to say that, in my opinion, we shall retain this commanding position in the immediate future. If I am asked to give my reasons for this opinion, I must say that the answer is neither simple nor easy, but I hope to be in the right if I remark as follows:

In view of the wealth of this country in products of all kinds, but in view of the want of labor, it has been and is still the chief task of the industry and of the engineer to devise means to render these products available in the simplest and cheapest manner. This is the field of the mechanical engineer, and American engineers, indeed, have accomplished the most magnificent results in handling and transporting vast masses and in the substitution of machinery for manual labor. This, indeed, is the essence and strength of the American industry and was the cause for the development of the mechanical industry, and in this respect America is the ruling nation and has set an example to the whole world.

But the conditions are quite different in the purely chemical branch of the industry, the object of which is to convert crude materials by means of numerous chemical processes and chemical forces into more precious ones; where a new process devised by a chemist revolutionizes the industries and makes the old processes unprofitable, even if they are performed by the most ingenious appliances constructed by the most talented engineer; where not only the art of construction, but the genius of the naturalist in recognizing the forces of nature and their products is necessary to accomplish the object in view; where never or only rarely the production of large masses comes into consideration, but where an endless chain of products of the greatest variety must be prepared in small quantities.

If I have sung the praises of the American engineer and of the American mechanical industry in the preceding portion of this lecture, I must now express my satisfaction with the German chemist and the German chemical industry. In this field lies the strength of Germany—a consequence perhaps of the peculiarity of the German character. Forced by the want of natural resources and unprovided with American abundance, the German in scientific exploration must proceed in a cautious and economical manner, always bent on patient and minute research. He is forced to live a simpler life and to be modest in his demands, which is contrary to the American temperament.

It is true you have already a very important industry in the inorganic field of our science and produce large quantities of acids and alkalies and, above all, of metals. In consequence of the immense and cheap water power at your disposal, a very remarkable electrochemical industry has been developed. But these works manufacture at present only inorganic products, and so far as I can see it is impossible up to date to manufacture organic products as economically by electro-chemistry as it is possible with the older chemical methods. You have also begun to isolate the products of tar distillation which are formed during the coking of coal, and it is intended to convert the hydrocarbons thus obtained into more intricate organic products. You have also the beginning of a coal-tar color industry, due to the protective duty of thirty per cent, ad valorem. I have also noted that in metallurgical and textile works, but above all in factories of heavy chemicals and pharmaceutical specialties, chemists exercise analytical control of the raw materials which enter into the process. At some places we found wonderful laboratories in which many chemists were employed. We saw above all how your universities and technical schools are endeavoring to promote our science. Excellent representatives of scientific chemistry are employed as teachers. Scientific research is carried on more and more. But, notwithstanding all that, I think that we Germans need not be alarmed in the near future. The time for the development of the organic chemical industries on a large scale has not yet arrived. As I have shown before, the Germans are masters in manufacture where numberless products are employed in a series of reactions which finally lead to the finished product, and require manual labor, which can not possibly be replaced by machinery, while Americans may claim to be masters where manufactures on a large scale are concerned, which can be done by machinery. Yet we must not leave out of consideration the very important facts that in America wages are extraordinarily high, that the conditions of life are here much more elaborate, and last, but not least, that the employees, and more particularly the workmen, manifest a spirit of independence, which has become especially noticeable during the last few years. By their labor unions the workmen attempt not only to raise wages to a height which will make manufacturing difficult and less profitable, but they are also endeavoring to take the control of the works out of the hands of the educated managers and put it into the hands of irresponsible labor leaders. This movement, as I have above shown, is especially fatal for the chemical industry in which our glorious science should be supreme. But nobody can deny that times will change in all these respects. Then you will be obliged to husband more economically your natural treasures, and you will experience changes which with us, in the course of historical development, are already things of the past. But this accomplished, the organic chemical industry of this country will commence to flourish. It will be found that the only way that leads to success in chemical manufactures is a combination of science and technics, the two branches of which eminent representatives are to-day assembled here, men who in their spheres have done so much already for the advancement of industries. It will be found that technical progress in this industry can only be secured on the basis of purely scientific research, and to the man who first recognized this fact and taught it to the world, to our great fellow countryman, Justus von Liebig, not only the German, but also the great American, nation, nay the whole world, owes eternal gratitude.

  1. An address delivered before a joint meeting of the New York Sections of the Society of Chemical Industry, the American Chemical Society, the Verein Deutschen Chemiker and the Chemists Club, held in celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Justus von Liebig.