The Chemical Industry: From the 1850s until Today

By Landau, Ralph; Arora, Ashish | Business Economics, October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Chemical Industry: From the 1850s until Today


Landau, Ralph, Arora, Ashish, Business Economics


GROWING BY RESTRUCTURING AND ADAPTING TO CHANGING ENVIRONMENTS

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have had many examples of how new discoveries have translated into greater economic growth for the world. Before that era, there was no real concept of growth, except by conquest, plunder, or exploration. Most people understood that they were born with a particular status in life. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776, at the beginning of the modern era, and we are still indebted to him for his insight into an economic system that could accommodate and build on this revolution. We must not lose sight of the miracle that growth rates since then have risen remarkably, even though the world's population was growing rapidly. Increasingly, jobs have been found for this growing population at an amazing rate, albeit unevenly in different countries.

Although the early inventions of the Industrial Revolution were not scientific but largely empirical technology, later on, and especially in the twentieth century, science has been essential to modern technologically based industry, and thus crucial to the great economic growth described earlier. We decided some years ago to illuminate this question by studying the chemical industry, the first science-based industry. As a science-based industry, it began in 1856 in the United Kingdom with the discovery of synthetic mauve by William Henry Perkin, but it had earlier roots in science, which we explore briefly.

An account of this remarkable development is contained in our new book published in 1998 by John Wiley and Sons, in conjunction with the Chemical Heritage Foundation, entitled Chemicals and Long-Term Economic Growth, edited by Professor Nathan Rosenberg of Stanford, and us. We are indebted to that study for some of these remarks.

The science of chemistry originated in the eighteenth century. The first truly scientific chemist was Antoine Lavoisier, who systematically measured and studied chemical reactions. Unfortunately, he was guillotined by that other Revolution in 1794, not because of his chemical knowledge, but because he was a tax collector for the Ancien Regime in order to earn a living. It was not the only time politics and science have collided-think of Galileo and the Inquisition, and Lysenko in the Soviet Union. In fact, history records that Robespierre and Hitler, at different times and in different circumstances, both said in effect that their revolution had no need of scientists!

Lavoisier had followers. The young German Justus von Liebig, himself a student of Lavoisier's follower, Joseph Gay-Lussac (who had studied with Lavoisier's disciples, Pierre La Place and Claude Berthollet), established the systematic teaching of chemistry at the University of Giessen in the early 1830s. In so doing, he originated the concept of the research university, the institutional framework that would lead the Germans to dominate in chemistry until late in the nineteenth century. That lineage has continued: M.I.T's Warren K. Lewis, the founder of modern chemical engineering, received his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Breslau, as did many of his colleagues in other German universities.

In 1845 the British recruited Liebig's assistant, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, to lead the newly established Royal College of Chemistry. One of Hofmann's students was Perkin. So here we see the intellectual chain from Lavoisier to Gay-Lussac to Liebig to Hofmann to Perkin - each building on his predecessor to the beginnings of the first science-based industry.

But the Royal College did not last as a privately funded institution beyond 1865, when Hofmann returned to Berlin, disappointed with the lack of support from English industry and universities. It seems the educational pacesetters were the top institutions - Oxford and Cambridge - and they were focused on the classics, theology, and the learned professions, not on science. …

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