In a time of Twaddell

Chemistry, Society and Environment
June 29, 2001

In one of many vignettes in this reappraisal of Britain's industrial chemistry, we learn how Charles Macintosh (Sir Walter Scott's "Webster Charlie"), requiring ammonia for bleaching and dyeing, procured a fleet of horse-drawn carts, duly despatched to Edinburgh and Glasgow to buy the contents of chamber pots. There were social consequences. The urine was no longer poured from tenement windows on the heads of passers-by. Purchasing the liquid gold by volume encouraged fraudulent dilution on the part of domestic suppliers until a Glasgow instrument maker named Twaddell came up with a robust hydrometer.

Histories of chemistry need not be dull and this one certainly is not. Its explicit claim to novelty lies precisely in its exploration of the social and environmental consequences of industrial chemistry, twin facets that were of less topical concern in earlier literature. The aim is to provide a balanced assessment of the impact of chemical manufacture on human lives, with due regard for environmental sensibilities and their own intriguing history. The result is a richly nuanced text replete with examples of scientific and technical ingenuity, each with its own chapter of incident and accident - including the sad case of a delinquent vat man employed in the production of soda crystals who, having fallen into the vat, found that his clothes were so stiff with crystals that his trousers stood up by themselves. It was felt by the local magistrate that he had been punished enough already.

This is a history, then, that tells us about chemical workers as well as chemical processes. We meet the potmen and the black-ash men of the alkali industry who, for all their heavy drinking, are shown by Alec Campbell to have needed skills and judgement for which they have been insufficiently credited. Other contributors are scholars who worked with Colin Russell at the Open University's Centre for the History of Chemistry, Sarah Wilmot and Noel Coley.

Russell's introductory chapter provides a useful bibliographical survey - of previous overviews, of company histories, film archive's and local studies of chemical plants. While insisting that the book should not be read as an apologia for the chemical industry, Russell nevertheless observes that a far better image of its achievements and contribution to our quality of life can be discerned through serious historical analysis than one would infer from popular prejudice today. In their concluding chapter, Wilmot and Coley give substance to this by adopting the device of revealing just how dependent we have been on chemical products for our delectation - from celluloid for movies to fuel for our own mobility. Such is the complexity of the interdependency that, while we groan at the mass spillage of oil, we turn to dispersants and detergents for help - products themselves of the oil industry.

There are informative chapters on the diversity and scope of the chemical industry today; but it is the historical orientation, permitting contrasts between past and present, that proves so instructive. In 1935, Du Pont had as its slogan "better things for better living through chemistry". This was no doubt a partial truth, even then, but it defined an optimistic vision that had been shared by many Victorians and against which we recognise the shock to a recent generation of discovering that seemingly innocent objects such as deodorants may be depleting the ozone layer and increasing the incidence of skin cancer.

This is not to say that there were no anti-pollution debates in Victorian Britain. One of the strengths of the book is that it exposes them skilfully. But the debates had a different tone, reflecting the influence of an extensive campaign to improve both the health and amenities of urban life. In the context of river pollution, for example, industrial dumping was perceived to be a lesser danger to health than human, animal and plant wastes.

Public concern over the sea as a sink was slow to emerge. There is no evidence of a general anti-industrial rhetoric or of a widespread fear of chemical compounds. Anti-pollution campaigners in the 19th century were more likely to be worried about damage to property or amenity than to health. Pressure from the Alkali Acts, beginning in 1863, produced an incipient rhetoric of social and environmental responsibility, but the evidence suggests that Victorian industrialists responded minimally to public criticism, having little or no conception of environmental cleansing as a good in itself or of its benefits for non-human life. If the choice was between work and redundancy, their employees would back them, as they did in South Shields when the lead and glass manufacturers Cooksons were threatened with litigation for damage to farmland. On such issues, the authors show a welcome sensitivity to regional variation. Local-authority attitudes in Swansea, for example, favoured employment over clean air. As late as 1957 a spokesman for ICI at a clean air conference could still imply that avoidance of justified public complaint was all that really mattered.

Another welcome feature of the analysis is the refusal to present the issues in black and white. The dangers of DDT associated with its persistence in food chains are given full weight; but against a background in which the World Health Organisation could claim that its use in India had cut the incidence of malaria from 100 million cases a year to only 15,000, and the number of deaths from 750,000 to 1,500.

Black-and-white pictures in one sense greatly enhance the book. But black-and-white appraisals of chemical industries are inappropriate for a special reason. While their waste products have sometimes been terribly recalcitrant, they have been a spur to innovation or even to collaboration where one man's waste can be another's raw material. Glass-makers would use soap-boilers' waste and residues from 'copperas' production could be used in tanneries. In the alkali industry, Leblanc factories produced two pollutants, hydrochloric acid and calcium sulphide, the former distributing itself as a noxious acid rain. Efforts to utilise such waste constituted an industry in itself, and it is these wheels within wheels, or rather gases within gases, that make the story so fascinating and complex. Chlorine for bleaching could be obtained from hydrochloric acid using manganese dioxide; but the high cost of wasted manganese became the bugbear. The answer to this riddle came not from an industrial chemist but from a journalist, Walter Weldon, who mixed a slurry of lime with the waste manganese liquors to produce "Weldon mud", from which more chlorine could be gener-ated. Attempts to recycle waste and to alleviate damage from chemistry through new chemistry constitute key themes of the book and a welcome counterpoint to simplistic evaluation.

Balancing gains against costs other than the merely economic is not an exact science and there are moments when the authors run the risk of weighing imponderables. The claim, for example, that chemical industries have contributed to a rise in public health standards equal to those made by the progress of medical knowledge may not be comparing like with like. More problematically, perhaps, the balance is always liable to be disturbed by advances in chemical understanding. As historians of science, the authors are well aware of this. They note the concerns expressed about the safety of nitrites as potential carcinogens after reacting with foodstuffs to form nitrosamines. Yet they also observe that their use in protecting the population from botulism will continue until a safer substitute can be found. This diachronic element features again in the discussion of unexpected consequences of chemical processes. An example would be the unsuspected oestrogenic activity of synthetic chemicals when released into the environment.

There is a somewhat encyclopedic aspect to the text that means that not all readers will want to stay the course. The focus on Britain is not strictly parochial and there are occasional comparisons with Germany, which dominated the synthetic dyestuffs industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a guide to the role of chemistry in dissolving barriers between the natural and the artificial, the chapters have much to offer.

The text is dedicated to the memory of Archie Clow, whose monograph on industrial chemistry, The Chemical Revolution , taught a generation of historians that Lavoisier's conceptual revolution was not the only chemical revolution worthy of discussion. Sadly, Alec Campbell died during the final stages of production. His chapters on the vicissitudes of the alkali industry, the nitrogen industry and the production of "fine inorganic chemicals", lie at the heart of a book that will serve as a tribute to his inimitable scholarship and wit.

John Hedley Brooke is professor of science and religion, University of Oxford.

Chemistry, Society and Environment: A New History of the British Chemical Industry

Editor - Colin A. Russell et al
ISBN - 0 85404 599 6
Publisher - Royal Society of Chemistry
Price - £59.50
Pages - 372

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