Catalysing My Reading Rate – The Chemical Industry
The Chemical Industry – T.I. Williams (Penguin, 1953)
First, I have a confession to make. I have skipped a Pelican in this series of reviews. After I finished Derelict Britain I decided to get all cerebral and try A.J. Ayer’s philosophical/linguistic classic Language, Truth and Logic . Despite the blurb claiming that it was easy for the layman to read I couldn’t make head nor tail of it – perhaps it wasn’t the best thing to read on the Tube in the morning – I might come back to it but, for now, I binned it off.
Instead, I plumped for another Pelican, a very thin and very old one, from 1953. It probably says a lot that I managed to get as far in one commute as I did in Language after several – the ghost of A.J. Ayer take heed!
What do condoms, radar, the Nobel prize, and baking soda have in common? The chemical industry of course! Trevor Iltyd (what a name) Williams’ The Chemical Industry is a short book jam-packed with information and I devoured it over the course of a couple of days. This isn’t really surprising, because I am fascinated by the chemical industry. I grew up in chemical towns in the North West – Widnes and Cheshire. I’m also an historian, so I probably know more about it than the average person, allow me to explain.
If you aren’t from Northwich, chances are you’ve never heard of it. Why would you have? An old market town in mid-Cheshire, Northwich is more like an agglomeration of villages that have grown into each other over time. I remember once taking my friend James home from school and explaining as we walked how we passed into four different places in about five minutes. It’s a pretty boring place, a place the recession hit hard. The town centre is full of boarded-up shops (though a huge cinema/Asda complex is rising above the high street like a phoenix from the ashes). Shoppers go to the Trafford Centre, Liverpool or Manchester, nighttime revellers inexplicably to Warrington. Since leaving university many of my friends who lived there have left for the cities.
But if you look deeper you can get a sense of the past all around you. If you go to Anderton nature park, across the river there is a huge factory belching white smoke. Beside it, in the river, are the rotting hulks of half-sunken barges. On the riverbank huge rusting pipes snake along beside water. On Wallerscote Road, opposite the new housing development, there are a series of enormous brick warehouses, in the chain-link fence is a long-padlocked-up turnstile. Further down the road there is a big concrete slab in the hillside, the foundations of an long-demolished railway bridge, next to it is a huge grassy mound with strange milky pools at the bottom. This is a lime-bed, a type of chemical waste dump. Out by Northwich station there is a decaying railway wagon, sat alone in a forlorn siding surrounding by trees and shattered floodlights.
These are the ruins of the chemical industry. The hints that the factories that still exist at Winnington and Lostock were once part of something much bigger. If you are from Northwich, and your family have been there for a generation or two, it’s likely that you’ll know someone involved in the chemical industry. For over a century the town was the beating heart of the British alkali industry. Colossal factories employed thousands of men in a completely self-contained system that included its own railways, chauffeurs, engineers, and even a company shepherd. My grandad worked ‘down chimic’, as it was colloquially known, from the day he left school to the day he retired. I remember a sense of childish wonder at discovering a photo of my 15-year-old grandad, in his ICI apprenctice’s overalls, playing bowls in a works tournament in the successor company’s archive. The photo was published in the company magazine around the same time as Williams’ book. Between 2010-2011, during a break from university, I spent a whole year researching the history of the chemical industry in my local area, including through interviews with some former chemical workers who very generously gave me their time.
Consequently, Williams’ book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Nevertheless, it remains an excellent introductory work to those looking to know more about the chemical industry – which is, if anything, even more important today than it was then.
Williams’ book is split into two main parts. The first part is an historical overview of the industry, we learn that some of the most prominent early ‘chemical workers’ were alchemists, who tried, fruitlessly, to turn base metals into gold. In this section Williams is very cautious to point out just how little was known, a welcome change from the overly simplistic way history was often presented at the time, and establishes his clear and wry style, as seen in this anecdote:
James IV of Scotland was very fond of alchemy and employed a foreign alchemist – probably a Florentine – named Damian. Extant accounts show that Damian used large quantities of ‘aqua vite’ which was almost certainly no more than a type of whisky. No doubt alchemists, like their modern counterparts, were very appreciative of the subtle values of this as a beverage; equally, however, they were intrigued by its apparent harmonious blending of the opposing elements of fire and water. However he divided his interests between these two aspects of whisky, Damian required large quantities of it [p. 23].
Williams astutely makes the tale a story of science, and even nation, as well as industry. He tells how chemistry as a distinct branch of science was only established in 1841 with the founding of Britain’s Royal College of Chemistry. After the industrial revolution, the early chemical industry was intimately associated with another of Britain’s big money-spinners (pun intended), the textile industry. Early chemical concerns were vital for creating and supplying all manner of colourful dyes for textiles. Williams emphasises the ‘colourful’ start of the industry when compared to most of the filthy factories of the time – unfortunately that is rather a rose-tinted (or perhaps a rose-dyed? Ba-dum tsh) view of the industry, as demonstrated below…
The history of the development of the British chemical industry in which places like Widnes and Northwich were significant gives me a particular personal connection to the first part of Williams’ book. Yet the story of the chemical industry has a much wider resonance than that, as it plays a key part in our understanding of shifts in global power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Britain, with an early head start, was soon overhauled by Germany and the United States. The ability of Germany and the US to lead in new industries like chemicals presaged the decline of Britain as a global leader in manufacturing. This was despite the fact that the German industry took two enormous hits in the World Wars. After the First World War, for instance, the British sent a team of scientists over to Germany to basically nick all of their good ideas and bring them back to blighty.
Indeed, the chemical industry played a huge role in WW1, through provision of explosives. Brunner, Mond and Co. in particular played a huge role in supplying the nitrates and synthetic ammonia needed for British (and French) ordnance. This sometimes resulted in horrendous accidents such as the Silvertown Explosion in 1917, which flattened a huge East London TNT plant, killing seventy-three people.
Another key role that chemicals played in WW1 was in the form of chemical weapons, like mustard gas (see my recent blog on chemical warfare). This is something that Williams doesn’t really dwell on – perhaps because of its unsavoury nature. Inventing Radar is cool and, unless you were a German pilot in WW2, unambiguously good. Inventing lethal or debilitating gas less so. Unsurprisingly, the integral role of the giant German industrial chemical combine IG Farben in the Holocaust is ignored altogether in favour of a narrative which celebrates linear progression, technological innovation, and achievement. This is disappointing given Williams’ earlier caution with the past. Unlike the hazy early beginnings of the chemical industry, the role it played in chemical warfare in the early twentieth-century was much clearer. While this is a book about the development of the industry itself, not its side-effects, one feels that these were, at the very least, unconscious omissions from an industry insider too biased to consider their inclusion.
The second part of the book details the different types of products that the chemical industry makes. Here, Williams packs a ton of information, including descriptions of complex chemical processes, into a slew of very short chapters. Though this sometimes gets a bit technical, it is explained clearly throughout, meaning that Williams passes the Pelican Test with flying colours.
To give a sense of the sheer breadth of the industry, the second section includes chapters on:
acids and alkalis
chemicals used in medicine
Not being an expert on chemicals, these chapters are hard to assess. I don’t doubt that the chemical knowledge is sound, but I can’t say whether or not it’s outdated (and given the rapid development of the industry made between the late-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth I wouldn’t be surprised if it was). Williams capably demonstrates the multifarious uses of chemicals with short snippets of information about how they are made and then used in all manner of products which we use regularly in our daily lives: soap, glass, antibiotics, rubber, and so on.
In conclusion, then, I enjoyed my brief sojourn into The Chemical Industry. I also read it with a tinge of nostalgia knowing that the once-huge enterprise that dominated the landscape and society of mid-Cheshire is today a mere shadow of its former self. Globally speaking, however, the chemical industry continues to remain hugely significant to humanity and though Williams’ book was preaching to the converted in my case, it would be useful for anyone wanting to know more about the industry, what it does, and how it developed. I give it three ∈∈∈ “element of”s, because it’s chemistry. Elements? Geddit?
Next week you can look forward to a review of either:
Patrick Rothfuss’ incredibly awesome fantasy epicThe Name of the Wind.
Michael Burleigh’s wide-ranging but curiously and jarringly dismissive of the left-wing history epicSmall Wars, Far Away Places.
In the rare instance that someone comments on the blog I will review the book of your choice!