The Kaiser's Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany

By Jeffrey Allan Johnson | Go to book overview

1 The True Land of Unlimited Possibilities: International Competition, German Modernization, and the Dynamism of Science

We [Germans] do not possess, as do America and Russia, almost all the raw materials that we refine. Germany's greatest riches are undoubtedly the intelligence and industriousness of its population, and with this we must reckon. --Karl Goldschmidt, manufacturer, 1904

Chemistry and with it all natural science is the true land of unlimited possibilities.

-- Emil Fischer, organic chemist, 1911


The Problem

In 1911 Emil Fischer, Germany's leading organic chemist, addressed the inaugural meeting of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences, an organization composed mainly of businessmen who had provided substantial sums for the founding of new research laboratories. In a speech entitled "Recent Successes and Problems of Chemistry," he asserted that "chemistry and with it all natural science is the true land of unlimited possibilities." 1 Fischer backed these words by myriad examples of new scientific perceptions in all fields, but above all of chemical research being translated into practical uses. In particular, Germany could now replace expensive, naturally occurring substances, formerly imported from abroad, with synthetics and artificially produced substitutes based on cheaper, domestically available substances. His speech that day, with the Kaiser himself present in the audience, climaxed more than half a decade of effort directed toward getting the Imperial German government to recognize the economic and political value of chemistry by providing financial support for a new chemical research institution. Fischer's friend Carl Duisberg, one of the directors of the Bayer dye corporation, was "extraordinarily pleased"; at last the "highest authorities" had a "clear

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