Not Counting Chemistry: How We Misread the History of 20th-Century Science and Technology

Sealed glass tube containing sample of Haber's synthetic ammonia, 1909. Image courtesy of Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

Sealed glass tube containing sample of Haber's synthetic ammonia, 1909. Image courtesy of Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

There is of course much more to be said about the combined influence of chemistry and the chemical industry. Especially after 1945 hydrogenation technologies have been just a small part of the total of advances in chemistry. Yet in a sense we don’t have to say more—the case is made, perhaps all the more strongly because the technologies are not especially well-known.

If many of the key effects of the modern chemical industry came decades after chemistry ceased to be central to most histories of science and technology, aspects of chemistry show that many of the things we take to be recent are much older than we tend to think. It is commonly contended, for example, that close academia–industry relations are novel; indeed, many hold that the universities of the rich world have gone through a revolutionary change in the recent past. Consideration of the history of academic chemistry shows how misleading such a picture is. The joint inventors of the main process for making synthetic ammonia, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, were an academic and an industrialist, respectively. (Each of the men later received a Nobel Prize for their achievements.) Another important pre–World War I academic physical chemist, Walther Nernst, invented a new kind of lightbulb, the Nernst lamp, which he sold to the major German electrical company AEG. Russian-born Vladimir Ipatieff, a high pressure chemist, worked in the 1930s for both the oil industry and Northwestern University; in 1938 he and an associate patented the alkylation process, used to produce isooctane for aviation gasoline on a grand scale during the war. Other examples of this relationship abound in the history of technology.

It seems the very ubiquity of chemical invention and chemical research, the outputs of the chemical industry, have made these contributions seem rather mundane, even to historians of science and technology. Paradoxically the very success of chemical invention and research has been the undoing of its reputation in history.

David Edgerton is the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London, where he was the founding director of its Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. His most recent book, The Shock of the Old, was published by Oxford University Press in 2007.