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The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry

The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910-1930

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 418
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  • Book Info
    The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry
    Book Description:

    Prior to 1914, Germany dominated the worldwide production of synthetic organic dyes and pharmaceuticals like aspirin. When World War I disrupted the supply of German chemicals to the United States, American entrepreneurs responded to the shortages and high prices by trying to manufacture chemicals domestically. Learning the complex science and industry, however, posed a serious challenge. This book explains how the United States built a synthetic organic chemicals industry in World War I and the 1920s. Kathryn Steen argues that Americans' intense anti-German sentiment in World War I helped to forge a concentrated effort among firms, the federal government, and universities to make the United States independent of "foreign chemicals."Besides mobilization efforts to make high explosives and war gases, federal policies included protective tariffs, gathering and publishing market information, and, most dramatically, confiscation of German-owned chemical subsidiaries and patents. Meanwhile, firms and universities worked hard to develop scientific and manufacturing expertise. Against a backdrop of hostilities and intrigue, Steen shows how chemicals were deeply entwined with national and international politics and policy during the war and subsequent isolationism of the turbulent early twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1445-8
    Subjects: Business, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Late in the evening of July 9, 1916, the German U-boatDeutschlandsuccessfully executed its mission and docked at a warehouse designed especially for the submarine. Submarine warfare in World War I posed a new and troubling menace to military and commercial shipping, and the Germans became adept at exploiting the strategic advantages of the underwater boat. In May 1915, a German U-boat infamously sank the British passenger linerLusitania, which killed 1,200 people and made Americans—still neutral in the European war—more decidedly hostile to Germany. TheDeutschland’s voyage stunned Americans because its destination was Baltimore, and it...

  5. 1 Before the War
    (pp. 19-40)

    To understand the prewar economy in synthetic organic chemicals, consider a typical, if imaginary, journey of a synthetic dye and a synthetic pharmaceutical from Germany to the United States in 1914. On the eve of World War I, indanthrene blue GCD and Salvarsan represented the most advanced synthetic organic dye and pharmaceutical yet produced by the German industry. Americans had embraced both upon their introductions to the world markets, and the two products illustrate the complex global networks—technological, commercial, and political—underlying this high technology industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    More than earlier classes of dyes,...

  6. 2 American Manufacturers, German Chemicals Dyes and Pharmaceuticals, 1914–1918
    (pp. 41-77)

    At the outbreak of hostilities, American entrepreneurs embraced the manufacture of the signature German synthetic organic chemicals: dyes and pharmaceuticals. While the war heightened uncertainty and risk, not least because of its unpredictable duration, entrepreneurs seized the opportunities born of war. To many in the industry, wresting chemical markets from the German industry also became a patriotic mission larger than themselves. Chaotically launching into domestic manufacturing, Americans faced the daunting reality of German dominance, but many also believed the German experience could offer them guidance and models on which to pattern their industry. Americans wanted the synthetic dyes and pharmaceuticals...

  7. 3 Mobilization Synthetic Organic Chemicals in War, 1914–1918
    (pp. 78-112)

    If synthetic organic chemicals had included only dyes and pharmaceuticals, proponents of the domestic industry might still have argued convincingly for its survival in the name of national interest. But because many high explosives and war gases were also synthetic organic chemicals, industry backers could make a much more explicit case for national security. Although some proponents exaggerated the speed with which dyes and pharmaceuticals plants could be converted to explosives and gas arsenals, the chemical relationships among the civilian and military products existed. By the armistice, war chemicals began contributing to the long-term establishment of the domestic industry in...

  8. 4 Ideology and Institutions American Chemists Respond, 1914–1918
    (pp. 113-137)

    In the U.S. effort to build a domestic synthetic organic chemicals industry, the skills and commitment of American chemists would be crucial. American manufacturers needed their in-house knowledge, but they also believed—based on German experience—that their ability to innovate depended on universities’ ability to expand their research in synthetic organic chemistry and to train employees for the industry. Historians of business and technology have increasingly highlighted the networks and nodes that construct an infrastructure of knowledge to support science and technology-based industries. When the war began, American chemists and the larger chemical community showed great ambivalence about the...

  9. 5 Xenophobia, Tariffs, and Confiscation, 1914–1918
    (pp. 138-171)

    The wartime crisis in dyes and pharmaceuticals shaped public policy in ways that had significance beyond the German chemicals. World War I left Americans feeling vulnerable from interruptions in international trade, and they sought to rectify the perceived weaknesses. Synthetic dyes and pharmaceuticals became a harbinger of the shift to autarky and isolation that gripped the United States during and after the war. In the relatively small sector of synthetic dyes, Americans rejected the globalized economy of the long nineteenth century, and the rejection came most explicitly and tangibly in promotional policies adopted by Congress and enforced by executive agencies....

  10. 6 Surviving the Peace Economic War, 1919–1922
    (pp. 172-203)

    The armistice on November 11, 1918, ended the fighting in Europe but initiated a turbulent postwar economic transition from a war economy to a peacetime economy. The three years following the war proved crucial to the American synthetic organic chemicals industry, particularly the dyes and pharmaceuticals manufacturers. Most industrialists felt they still lacked the ability to compete on equal footing with the German industry and continued to work closely with the federal government to encourage the development of the industry. The policymakers and American manufacturers strove to prevent the return to the prewar globalized commercial network, which they believed would...

  11. 7 Customs, Courts, and Claims The Industry and the Law, 1922–1930
    (pp. 204-236)

    With the war increasingly behind them, Americans attempted to return to a peacetime economy, but the war’s political and economic fallout would consume the synthetic organic chemical manufacturers’ attention through the 1920s. Isolationism permeated the United States, and Americans lost trust in the benefits of global ties. The synthetic organic chemicals manufacturers, with their hope to survive the peace and thrive in the 1920s, certainly had no desire to return to a prewar state. They worked hard to establish a new status quo in which the German firms would never regain their old footing in the American market. With the...

  12. 8 An “American” Industry, 1919–1930
    (pp. 237-286)

    By 1930, the American dyes and pharmaceuticals industry had reached a stage of development sufficient to prevent another deep crisis if nations again disrupted international commerce. The industry satisfied policymakers’ basic expectations for its role in the national defense, and, after a decade of learning and consolidation, the leading firms usually turned a profit. Americans, however, depended on the exceptional advantages of the steep tariffs and confiscated set of patents to hold their position in the U.S. market, and German firms recovered many of the international markets where Americans had ventured during the war. At the end of the 1920s,...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 287-294)

    In the early 1920s, Merck & Company corresponded regularly with E. Merck in Darmstadt, sharing technical information despite having become separate firms, but the management on each side faced a telling problem. In the spring of 1922, Rudolf Gruber at Merck & Company exchanged several letters with E. Merck in Darmstadt about which language their chemists should use to communicate across the Atlantic. The technical staff in Germany requested German, suggesting it was in the American firm’s best interest to make sure the Germans could understand Americans’ questions and problems. Gruber sent them an English-German technical dictionary, perhaps with an implicit message...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 295-364)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 365-390)
  16. Index
    (pp. 391-403)