The First Century of Chemical Engineering

MIT Industrial Chemical Lab

The Industrial Chemical Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1893.

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was established by a committee of chemists and engineers in 1908 during a period of industrial renaissance in the United States. At the turn of the last century the major world powers were anticipating the great need for engineering expertise both at home and throughout their empires; to be competitive in the world markets required major attention to engineering and technology. A telling sign of this competition was the appearance of several technologically sophisticated and nationalistic super ocean liners launched between 1900 and 1912: the Mauretania, the Deutschland, the France, and especially the Imperator, whose impressive structure, speed, and opulence represented a momentary display of German superiority. The founding of AIChE in 1908 was important not only for the professionalization of chemical engineering, but also because it represented the beginning of American technological dominance in the world stage of the 20th century. On 12 June 2008 AIChE celebrated its centennial in Philadelphia, the site of its original meeting 100 years ago.

The European Crucible

The chemical industry had a central position in the changing industrial world of the late 19th century. This industry did not hatch fully grown; it was based on nearly a century’s worth of scientific advances in the universities—particularly German universities.

In the beginning of the 19th century, scientific conditions were such that the study of chemistry was flourishing in Germany. Prominent among all scientists, Justus von Liebig (1803–1873) may be considered a major force in 19th-century chemistry, not only because of his seminal research achievements but also because of his great gift as an educator. In 1825 Liebig established a small chemistry laboratory at the University of Giessen, a town 35 miles north of Frankfurt, Germany. Over the next 30 years a large number of famous scientists would be educated there, including August Kekulé, August Wilhelm Hofmann, Adolphe Wurtz, and Charles Gerhardt. By the second quarter of the 19th century, three major chemistry laboratories at the universities of Giessen, Göttingen, and Heidelberg were producing a number of outstanding organic and physical chemists. All of them did imaginative research that led to new production methods of important chemicals and nourished the German, European, and—indirectly—American industry. Students educated in these laboratories would in turn establish laboratories elsewhere, including the United States.

What set Liebig and his students apart from other university chemists of the time was an interest in applying their fundamental discoveries to the development of specific chemical processes and products. Hoffman’s aniline dye process is only one of many such processes developed between 1840 and 1880 in Germany.

In 1848 the political revolution that had started in France swept eastward across the Rhine, overthrowing established authority in Germany and giving central Europe a taste of liberal reform. The Industrial Revolution, made possible by chemistry, proved immensely profitable on the one hand, but on the other it also created new factory environments with deplorable working conditions. One result of the political changes in 1848 was an attempt to revise industrial processes with an emphasis, though primitive, on safer and more efficient methods. These were the circumstances from which the field of chemical engineering would emerge in the mid-19th century.

Creating a Curriculum

Despite the developments in German universities and industry, education in chemistry and chemical engineering had not been formalized. Students obtained at best superficial knowledge about the new industrial chemical processes in their chemistry courses. The operation of distillation columns, filtration units, and the like was taught in so-called technical schools, not in universities. The Technical University of Braunschweig, for instance, soon offered “industrial” courses, but in the eyes of Liebig’s academic descendants at Göttingen, Heidelberg, and Berlin, it was not to be considered a university.