‘Innovation in Industrial Chemistry’
28 April 2006, Royal Society of Chemistry, London
On Friday 28 April 2006 the Historical Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in conjunction with the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, held a one-day conference at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, London, entitled Innovation in Industrial Chemistry. The meeting was in association with the Chemical-Historical Group of the Dutch Chemical Society (KNCV) and the Chilterns and Middlesex Section of the RSC. It constituted the second part of a very successful Anglo-Dutch meeting held at the Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, on Chemistry and Medicine in the 18th Century in April 2004. There were over 50 attendees from across industry and academia from both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. On the Thursday evening before the meeting an enjoyable conference dinner was held at the Polish Club, South Kensington, where attendees had the opportunity to meet the conference speakers.
Following a welcome by Professor Alan Dronsfield, Chairman of the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group and an introduction by Professor Jack Betteridge (Chairman of the Anglo-Dutch Working Party), the one-day conference began with a keynote lecture by David Edgerton, the Hans Rausing Professor at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College, London. Entitled “Changing Patterns of Invention in the Twentieth Century” his lecture drew attention to how our histories of science and technology are systematically biased towards invention and innovation. However, they cannot be taken to be adequate histories of either, for they focus not on invention and innovation as a whole, but rather on the early histories of inventions and innovations that became successful, and on the early histories of types of inventing organisation which were taken to characterise later periods.
In his paper Professor Edgerton sketched out what a history of invention might look like when these systematic biases are removed. To do this, he examined three areas upon which histories of invention focused and challenged common perceptions regarding them. Starting with academic research, he showed how there is a bias towards considering specific fields as providing the focus for academic research at certain times. As a consequence of this approach it is easy to overlook numerous areas of research activity. For example, during the twentieth century, despite being the largest academic science and a major focus of academic research, chemistry disappears from the history of invention as it is not perceived as a locus of innovative activity. Research in industry can also be overlooked, an omission Professor Edgerton corrected by highlighting the number of Nobel Prizes awarded for work done in industry and the importance of collaboration between the academic and industrial sectors.
The second part of Professor Edgerton’s paper focused on how invention is considered to concentrate in a particular area at a certain time: the electrical and chemical sectors in the late-nineteenth century, the nuclear sector in the mid-twentieth century and most recently computing and biotechnology. However if we examine which firms have the largest R & D expenditure today, one finds not a list of biotechnology or computing businesses, but companies such as General Motors, Ford Motors and Siemens. In general, the largest R & D funders today all existed in some form before the Second World War, with many originating prior to World War One. The third area that Professor Edgerton challenged was the common perception of a linear development of invention. In this interpretation initially invention is considered the work of individuals taking out patents on their new ideas. It then becomes the work of corporate research and by the 1970s the key innovative institution becomes the science park or the entrepreneurial academic operating in the biotechnology or computing sectors. Through challenging common public perceptions about the number of patents taken out by individuals, the perceived absence of R & D in firms prior to the Second World War and the presupposed importance of novel sectors, Professor Edgerton called for a re-evaluation of the history of innovation and invention. After all, in some ways the present may not be as radically innovative as the past. For example the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the invention of x-rays, the motor car, cinema, flight and radio. To underline his argument Professor Edgerton showed the audience a photograph of a chemical factory and asked them to guess its location and date. Whilst the identity of the factory, that of BASF at Leverkusen, was easily established, the date proved more difficult with estimates ranging from the late nineteenth century to just after the First World War. Nobody guessed the correct answer of 1947.
The second paper was given by Professor Keetie Sluyterman of Utrecht University and was entitled ” Business Strategy and Innovation at Shell Chemicals, 1973-2000.” During the 1950s and 1960s Shell had invested heavily in chemicals and by the early 1970s it had become one of the major players in the chemical industry, with the most extensive chemical activities of any of the oil majors. However, given that profits in the oil industry tended to be high, the financial results from chemicals seldom met management’s expectations.
In her paper Professor Sluyterman discussed the various strategies that Shell followed in its chemical activities during the last three decades of the twentieth century. These strategies shifted over time in response to changing external circumstances and different management perceptions. In the 1970s, Shell Chemicals struggled with problems of overcapacity and high oil prices. The company sought competitive advantage in two innovative processes, SM/PO (Styrene Monomer/Propylene Oxide) and SHOP (Shell Higher Olefins Process). In rethinking its portfolios at this time, it withdrew from its activities in fertilisers.
In the 1980s Shell followed the general trend of moving ‘downstream’ in the value chain, producing speciality chemicals for specific markets where profit margins were expected to be higher. For success in speciality chemicals, Shell required access to world markets, market-driven R & D and a centralised business culture. However, with its decentralised organisational structure, it was clear that Shell was not naturally geared towards specialty chemicals. Nonetheless, Shell pursued this strategy for a number of years, mostly though acquisitions. It launched a number of new products, but it was difficult to produce them cheaply enough to compete with existing products. It made small losses in the early 1980s, but by the early 1990s these losses were significant. As a result Shell returned ‘back to basics.’ Forty percent of its chemical interests were sold. Then, with the focus on base petrochemicals, Shell Chemicals was integrated with oil manufacturing to form Downstream One in 1998. Over the period of half a century the company had turned full circle in its approach to chemicals.
The first afternoon session was chaired by Professor William Brock, Chairman of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry and it began with a jointly authored paper “Respecting each other’s markets: Shell, Unilever and the development of Teepol” by Professor Ernst Homburg and Dr Frank van der Most. In this paper innovation in industrial chemistry was discussed from both a technical and a commercial point of view and the influence of another Anglo-Dutch giant of the detergents market, Unilever, was explored. Its focus was the synthetic detergent Teepol, which was developed at the Amsterdam research laboratory of the Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM), the Dutch operating company of Shell, between 1932 and 1938.
During the 1920s the growing use of hard water became an ever increasing problem for the textile industries. This problem was particularly acute in wool manufacturing as soaps could not be used under these conditions. Consequently, several chemical companies embarked on research projects directed at finding new detergents that lacked the disadvantages of natural soaps. Between 1925 and 1931 IG Farben entered the market with new synthetic detergents, Nekal and Igepon, which could be used in hard water. In 1931 another German firm, H.Th. Böhme, successfully launched the fatty alcohol sulphate Gardinol. The following year Böhme was also the first company to market a synthetic detergent for consumers. Following these developments, Unilever joined forces with IG Farben and concluded agreements in 1933 and 1935 which gave Unilever the right to undertake the world wide marketing of IG Farben’s synthetic detergents for domestic purposes.
Meanwhile Shell’s Dutch operating company, BPM, entered the production of synthetic detergents in 1932, in order to make economic use of the C 13 -C 18 olefins which were by-products of paraffin cracking. Between 1933 and 1937 a process for the production of the synthetic detergent Teepol was developed in a pilot plant in Amsterdam. From 1938 onwards a commercial plant for Teepol was constructed at Stanlow, Cheshire, and this came on stream in 1942. Most of the products manufactured at Stanlow found their way to industrial users. However, after 1945, following tedious negotiations, BPM and Unilever successfully joined forces in the development of Teepol for household purposes. By charting the development of Teepol from laboratory to marketplace, this paper showed that successful innovation is a complicated and heterogeneous process in which accidental events, dedicated hard work, and tough negotiations all play a role.
The next paper ” From Petroleum to Protein 1959-1977,” presented by Professor Jack Betteridge (formerly Chief Research Associate, British Petroleum), was based on a collaborative effort between himself and Dr John D. Levi (formerly of University College, Swansea and British Petroleum). In the late 1960s growing concerns about the expected increase in the world’s population and the large difference in consumption levels of proteins between the developing and industrial worlds (known as the “protein gap”) led scientists to begin thinking of ways to increase protein production. One of the first groups of scientists to experiment with a novel route to protein production was that led by Champagnat at BP’s oil refinery at Lavera near Marseille. Although the initial interest was to aid the refining process, Champagnat recognised that the ability of a few yeasts to grow on n-paraffins as well as on sugars was a route to single cell protein. As oil was cheap and abundant at this time, this process appeared to have the potential to close the protein gap.
The senior management of BP were impressed with the research and authorised a programme of work designed to bring about the full-scale production of single cell protein from petroleum. At the time, BP had no research experience in biochemistry or microbiology, no experience of bioengineering or of marketing food products. However it did have the immense resources of one of the world’s largest companies and expertise in project management. Work at Lavera was to continue, but a new research group was formed at BP’s Grangemouth refinery in 1964. The microbiologists in this group were first headed by G. L. Solomons and then by John D. Levi. The group’s roles were to carry out basic research into the process and to take it through the pilot plant stage. It was also to provide an independent check of the work at Lavera. Parallel to this work a programme of toxicological and nutritional testing of the product was initiated in 1964. Having overcome various engineering challenges, successful small-scale manufacturing plants were built at both Grangemouth and Lavera in 1971-1972 and the product was named “Toprina.”
By 1971, it was evident that the concept of converting petroleum to protein was a technical success, and the economic forecast for the sale of Toprina was favourable. Decisions were taken to prepare for full scale production and to acquire four specialist companies in the animal feed business. Although toxicological testing demonstrated that Toprina was safe to eat, it was considered prudent to feed it to animals rather than directly to humans and potential markets were identified in Italy, Japan and the USSR. The Grangemouth design was scaled up for full scale production (100,000 tpa) at Sarroch in Sardinia, with the first run commencing on 19 th December 1976.
Despite the project’s technological achievements, the politics surrounding the plant’s operation caused numerous problems for BP. Various complaints about pollution, carcinogenic products, and unknown and undetectable sources of toxicity were made even though they were unsupported by scientific evidence. Furthermore, BP had extensive difficulties operating within the Italian political system. The political battle was lost when the Consiglio Superiore voted to ban the commercial use of bioproteins. After just forty days and forty nights the run in progress at Sarroch was halted, and a similar Japanese venture in Sicily was abandoned before the plant was completed.
There were two further factors in BP’s decision to abandon the process. In 1974 the oil price rose from approximately $2 to $20 per barrel and this completely altered the economic evaluation of the product. When it was evident that there would be no return to low oil prices the project was doomed. Meanwhile, a different approach to the solution of the protein gap was looking very promising. The green revolution in agriculture had led to soya bean being produced in large quantities at a competitive price. Although its protein content was lower, because it was a natural product there were no complaints about its toxicity. As an innovation, Toprina was a technical success but a commercial failure. BP stopped work on bioengineering and withdrew from Italy. However BP retained the amalgam of the animal feed companies that it had acquired during the venture under the name of BP Nutrition, with headquarters in Holland. This company was hugely profitable, level pegging with BP Oil and far outstripping BP Chemicals. By the time BP sold it off in the 1990s, it must have yielded a handsome return on the petroleum to protein venture.
The final session was chaired by Professor Ernst Homburg and it began with a paper by Dr Arjan van Rooij of the Eindhoven University of Technology entitled “The company that changed itself. R&D and the transformations of DSM, 1925-2000.” DSM (De Nederlandse Staatsmijnen – Dutch State Mines) was founded in 1908 to operate in the coal mining industry, but during the twentieth century the company transformed its operations from coal to chemicals in three stages. The first change saw a move from coal and coke to fertilisers and this was followed by a transformation from fertilisers to diversified chemicals. Then in the last three decades of the twentieth century, fuelled by low profitability, the firm changed its operations from bulk chemicals to chemicals with a high value added. Within this transformation of the firm’s activities, R & D played a crucial role in the company’s development. Although DSM moved into R & D relatively late, after the Second World War it expanded its activities in this area significantly. R & D at DSM was linked to the company’s economic performance and managerial approach and thus it reflected the cyclical trends exhibited in these areas. The period 1945-1970 was very favourable for the firm and there were endless technological opportunities for R & D. The firm culture was self-confident and R & D was seen as very important. Within this culture there was also a high tolerance of failure in R & D. This approach began to change during the 1970s when the market slowed down and economic conditions were difficult. However in the 1980s there was a crucial change in the approach of top management to R & D. As forward planning became more important, R & D was seen as vital for renewing the business, while its objectives became oriented towards high value added products.
In the next section of his paper Dr van Rooij examined the organisation of R & D within DSM. In the period 1945-1970, R & D had a loose structure, with an internalised culture not linked to the company. In the 1970s, as DSM’s coal activities shut down, greater organisational links were necessary and R & D had a much tighter structure. With the introduction of corporate development programmes in the 1980s, a strategic framework was introduced and mutual commitment developed between R & D and production. Having laid out this cyclical framework of the relationship between economics and management and the organisation of R & D at DSM, Dr van Rooij then characterised the nature of R & D at DSM in the three periods. In 1945-1970, R & D was independent. During the difficult 1970s, R & D became dependent. Finally in the 1980s and 1990s, following a programme of corporate development, R & D at DSM took on a balanced nature.
The final paper was given by Dr Peter Morris of the Science Museum and was entitled “Research at IG Farben Revisited.” IG Farben had been founded in 1925 by the merger of dye companies under the direction of Fritz ter Meer. In the 1930s it was the largest chemical firm in the world and one of the biggest investors in R & D, although outside of the chemical industry its activities in this field were not as large as firms such as General Electric and General Motors. By examining the various histories which have been written about IG Farben in turn, Dr Morris compared how different historians had characterised IG Farben’s approach to invention and innovation and the effectiveness of its research programme. He then contrasted these interpretations with the arguments he put across in his 1982 DPhil Thesis, “The development of acetylene chemistry and synthetic rubber by IG Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft, 1926-1945.” The strength of IG Farben’s research was built around the importance of both the technical committee and the “tea buro” and the firm’s use of the same team from laboratory bench to pilot plant. Producing patents as bartering tools for inter-company relations was also significant. Additionally, the work of the regional main laboratories and their research directors was important, but the merits of having two laboratories working on the same idea at the same time were debatable. Although some historians have praised the parallel laboratory system, Dr Morris argued that parallel research had a negative effect overall as it created a central laboratory for each research community rather than bringing the research effort together.
After having mentioned IG Farben’s activities in high pressure research and highlighted the differing economic and political conditions in the USA and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, Dr Morris provided some new insights into R & D at IG Farben. Within its research activities, several key concepts were highlighted: the significance of pilot plants, the importance of development as opposed to invention and the general lack of distinction between basic and applied research. Dr Morris stressed how all chemical firms collect ideas from outside and innovate from these. Thus, in this sense invention does not matter. Instead, it is the ideas that exist within a corporation that are important and whether the firm is able to convert them into valuable processes. Consequently, at IG Farben there were intensive investigations of other firm’s patents and research for customers even when it had not been requested, all in an attempt to obtain new markets. For example, when a company manufacturing dental plates approached IG Farben for a new dye, IG Farben responded by stating that there was a problem with the plastic not the dye and developed a new plastic. The firm, however, was not happy: it had wanted a new dye not a new plastic.
When surveying the existing work on R & D at IG Farben, Dr Morris highlighted various which areas demand further research. Many of the histories of the firm stop in the early 1930s, so the corporation’s development during the Third Reich and the new areas of research explored during the Second World War remain little studied. The issue of basic versus applied research also merits further investigation, as does the significance of customer-centred research. Furthermore the role of academic consultants has been little examined. Most importantly a comprehensive study of research at IG Farben is required, as currently the subject has only been examined in fragments.
‘Chemistry and Publishing’
26 October 2006, Science Museum London
The autumn meeting of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry was held on 26 October 2006 in the Science Museum Lecture Theatre. This half-day meeting examined various aspects of chemistry and the written word from early modern times to the present.
The first paper entitled “’Arcana publicata vilescunt’: Early Modern Chymistry and the Publication of Secrets” was given by Dr Peter Forshaw of Birkbeck College, University of London. In his paper, Dr Forshaw put forward a different perspective on the early beginnings of alchemical printing. He began with the few incunabular publications following the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and then moved on to the gradual appearance of medieval and early modern works in the early sixteenth century. He subsequently examined the growth of Paracelsian literature in the later sixteenth century and showed how anti-Paracelsian texts helped to promote the Paracelsian cause. Although at first sight there appeared to be an abundance of publications, by looking at the subject headings in the published records of the Frankfurt Book Fair between 1564 and 1600, the fluctuating status of alchemical publications was demonstrated. For example, it was not until 1572 that a category “Medici et Chemici Libri” (Medical and Chemical Books) appeared in these catalogues. Subsequently the term “chemici” reappeared and disappeared until 1594 when the category “Libri cum Medici, tum Chemici” became a permanent presence in the catalogue. Dr Forshaw then discussed the popularity of emblematic texts in the seventeenth century and stressed how their contents contain much of interest for anyone researching the early history of chemistry.
The words from the title of the paper “Arcana publicata vilescunt” – (mysteries or secrets published are made profane) provided the focus for the remainder of the paper. This phrase is found on the title page of the first edition of the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616), an alchemical allegory by the early Rosicrucian and later Silesian father, Johann Valentin Andreae. This is a rather paradoxical message to find on the title page of a book, alchemical or otherwise, as the sentiment expressed is surely antithetical to printing as the public dissemination of knowledge. Both the Chemical Wedding’s author and its editor, Johann Friedrich Jung, were familiar with the work of another published alchemist with similar qualms about “breaking the seal of hermetic silence”, the German Christian-Cabalist, Divine Magus and Physico-Chemist, Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605) and it is most likely that they found this phrase in one of his works on matter theory, On Primordial Chaos. In both the Chemical Wedding and On Primordial Chaos, there is a tension between the secretiveness of alchemical transmission, where arcane were passed from master to disciple, and the desire to promote the subject, disseminate knowledge, or at least present the appearance of possessing knowledge. This latter aspect was significant as individuals sought to assert the originality or primacy of their own insights to a wider audience, not only of fellow practitioners but also presumably to potential clients and patrons.
Professor David Knight of the University of Durham then spoke about “Publishing Chemistry in the Regency”. In the advertisement to the first volume of Annals of Philosophy (1813), Thomas Thomson remarked that some readers in the course of the year had “complained that too great a proportion of papers [had] been devoted to chemistry”. The claim on the journal’s title-page was indeed that it was devoted to chemistry, mineralogy, mechanics, natural history, agriculture and the arts – so it might seem that the grumblers had a point. However, Thomson’s retort was “that, like all other journals of the present day, our Annals must contain a greater proportion of Chemistry, which is making rapid progress, than of those sciences which are in a great measure stationary”.
In his paper, Professor Knight, looked at Annals as a vehicle for chemistry, and compared it with the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the Royal Institution’s Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and the Arts; taking the Regency to be a bit longer than its actual decade of the 1810s. This was a time when the offprint began to be a feature of scientific communication, and various early examples were circulated amongst the audience. It was also a time of major transition in publishing, as we find in William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Copyright law was relaxed, and, as decades of world war came to an end in 1815, paper and printing became cheaper, and books ceased to be luxury items. As cased bindings, lithography, woodcuts, clichés and stereotyping began to come in, such developments all made science more accessible through the medium of publication. The paper concluded with a few remarks about the journal Thomson edited with his nephew Robert twenty years later, Records of General Science. In all, the paper provided an idea of how this progressive science of chemistry and news of its development at home and abroad was put across to the public in the days before specialist journals appeared. Although these had already begun in France with the Annales de Chimie in Lavoisier’s time, in more-backward Britain they came later.
The third paper “Chemical News in the Chemical News: Publishing, Property and Secrecy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Chemistry” was given by Dr Jim Mussell, also of Birkbeck College, University of London. Chemical Newswas a long-running, relatively cheap publication which described itself on its frontispiece as “a journal of practical chemistry in all its applications to Pharmacy, Arts, and Manufactures”. This sub-title was actually retained from the journal’s predecessor, the Chemical Gazette, when it was launched in 1859 by William Crookes. From these beginnings, Chemical News ran weekly until it folded in 1932. While such longevity is not unique amongst nineteenth-century science periodicals, it was certainly not usual. As a result, Chemical News, even at a relatively modest 12 pages for much of its run, constitutes a major archive not only for those interested in chemistry, but also for those interested in the history of scientific publishing itself. In his research, Dr Mussell’s interest is in the periodical as an object and especially in the ways in which the mobility of these objects allows them to participate in various cultural formations. By focussing on Chemical News at the level of genre, Dr Mussell explored how a relatively cheap, scientific weekly participated in the wider marketplace. Like all periodicals, Chemical News is defined by its periodicity: as a weekly, it was well-positioned to capitalize on breaking events, circulating them quickly to a diffuse audience. Through using this periodicity, Dr Mussell then explored exactly what Chemical News thought was chemical news.
In the nineteenth century the proceedings of scientific societies tended to be published monthly, a periodicity that reflects the relatively stable status of this often peer-reviewed content. However, in order to capture the dynamism of scientific practice, whether in the form of emergent ideas, products, and inventions, or indeed the unsettled process of their debate, a more rapid periodicity is required. It is no coincidence that many of the most successful scientific weeklies such as English Mechanic, Chemist and Druggist, Electrical Review, Mechanics’ Magazine all had vibrant correspondence columns, and some were entirely based around reader contributions. It is also no coincidence that many of them are trade journals, as weekly periodicity allows them to match the working week – connecting both with the weekly wages of some of their readers, and the closing prices of the markets. Although when Chemical News was launched there were fewer weeklies than towards the end of the century, Dr Mussell suggested that the principles that link form and time remained the same and the eventual adoption of weekly publication by titles such as the Chemist and Druggist, Photographic Journal, andPharmaceutical Journal reflected broader cultural trends. As technologies of production and distribution increased, both the amount of scientific material available and the facilities for its dissemination also increased. As the century got faster, in other words, so too did the news.
The final paper “RSC Journals Publishing: a view from the 21st Century” was given by Dr Richard Kidd, Manager of Editorial Production Systems at the Royal Society of Chemistry. Dr Kidd has been with the RSC for 18 years, working on a variety of publishing products and projects such as the RSC journals archive. In this project over 3 tons of published material was digitised, a quantity of 250GB, and two-thirds of this material was owned by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The newest journal included was Soft Matter and Molecular BioSystems, which began in 2005. The oldest journal to be digitised was Memoirs and Proceedings of the Chemical Society, which was first published in 1841. Having digitised all of the Memoirs and its successor titles, Dr Kidd remarked how the publication was surprisingly consistent in its format. One article which did prove a challenge was “Observations on the Circular Polarisation of Light by Transmission through Fluids” by H. B. Leeson, which was published in the second volume of Memoirs and Proceedings of the Chemical Society. This article was accompanied by a dial of two moveable discs of paper held together with a split pin, to assist readers with replicating the experiments. Incorporating the movement entailed in this dial required animating the digitised version of the insert. When, in the third volume of Memoirs, another Leeson article included yet another dial, even greater difficulties were encountered as this insert required animation in three-dimensions. Fortunately for the digitizers, this was the final article of this sort that Leeson published.
Dr Kidd proceeded by highlighting some of the more interesting and unusual items which appeared in the journals published by the institutions which later became part of the Royal Society of Chemistry. When reporting on its fiftieth anniversary in 1891, the Chemical Society published both the seating plan for its Jubilee Dinner, which was attended by the Queen, and also the menu card. Those attending the dinner were rewarded with an extravagant menu which included oysters and an impressive wine selection. During the Second World War, the Faraday Society published the contents of a cable from the Soviet Scientists Anti-Fascist Committee, which protested against the Nazi atrocities and praised recent victories by the Red Army. Meanwhile, the importance of understanding developments in Russian chemistry for UK practitioners was highlighted by the Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1963 when it published a series of articles teaching useful chemical terms in Russian to its readers. By providing an enjoyable tour through of the contents of many of the journals included in the RSC journal archive, Dr Kidd highlighted not only the changes in the science of chemistry since 1841 but also the changes in the nature of publishing, while drawing further attention to a resource which is of immense use to both chemists and historians of chemistry.