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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Looking to History for Answers - What We're Reading (Part 2)


“No science is so intimately connected with the pursuits of man, or mingles so extensively with his occupations as chemistry.” – Stephen Elliott, Botanist, 1816

Perhaps a bit of professional bias, but we most certainly agree with Mr. Elliott! In our research, and our work in Environmental Forensics, chemistry is woven into nearly every aspect: whether connecting industrial footprints to chemical fingerprints; demystifying the complex interactions of pH, temperature, groundwater flow, and heavy metals; or having an expert connect with a jury, chemistry matters.

It is fitting then that what we’re reading includes the study of atoms and molecules, of their fate and transport, of their anthropogenic origins. As with most pursuits of humans, these texts touch on history, politics and conflict, too. 

During our research into synthetic indigo – see our post on M&A’s recent work on the origins of halogenated carbazoles – we wanted fill in gaps and gain a better understanding of specifically where these dyes go after they were manufactured. Which textile mills? Which printing operations? Patent literature suggests a number of applications; World War I & II related documents suggest additional wartime uses; but clues into specifics can be difficult to track down.  

Hoping to find some answers, we picked up Kathryn Steen’s The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics 1910-1930 (2014). At that time, the industrial chemicals industry was dominated by dye production; in fact as Robert Baptista of Colorants History observes, “[d]ye chemistry was the foundation for pharmaceuticals, fibers, plastics and many other products.” The turn of the century was a time of transition from a more monochrome world of natural hues to an era of countless coal tar dyes in brilliant shades like mauve and indigo. From our research we know Germany dominated the development and production of dyes, and in particular, synthetic indigo. In 1913 Germany was exporting nearly 74 million pounds of the dye, otherwise known as Vat Blue 1. Without a source of domestic production, the U.S. was importing over 8 million pounds from Germany and Switzerland. However the arrival of WWI created a shortage of dyes, making it obvious that the U.S. needed its own manufacturing capacity. Dow Chemical was one of the first to start production, and one of the first to provide halogenated variations of synthetic indigo in the U.S [1].

As Steen’s book illustrates, this microcosm was reflective of the more general conditions of the chemical industry: Germany enjoyed global supremacy in the chemical industry, but WWI made it clear to the U.S. that an independent American industry was essential. Steen expands greatly on this and much more. She delves into the significant efforts by the U.S. government to encourage domestic growth of an American chemical industry; the strong influence of WWI and the nationalism and subsequent isolationism of the 1920’s. Steen also discusses the growth of the major players in the US markets, familiar names like Dow, Dupont, Union Carbide, and Bakelite.

Obviously, our interest was specifically in her references to synthetic indigo, but the book provides a fascinating window into the influence of WWI and the political-economic context of the era on the development and growth of the U.S. synthetic organic chemical industry. If you're interested in reading more about WWI and the chemical industry, you can check out the Chemical Heritage's most recent copy of Distillations.  CHF is also the institution that brought our attention to the opening quote.  

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[1] Watson, Warren N., and Chester H. Penning. "Indigo and the World's Dye Trade." Industrial and Engineering Chemistry 18.12 (1926): 1309-312. American Chemistry Society. Web.

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