Which invention in human history has had the greatest impact on our well-being? The computer? The plough? The letterpress? Nutella? All of these are undoubtedly worthy candidates who deserve a regular place in the ancestral gallery of the most important inventions of mankind. There is, however, another candidate who is repeatedly and prominently named by scientists.
This story begins with a fiery plea before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Bristol in 1898, and long before the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, “The Limits of Growth”, warnings of – well, the limits of growth were commonplace tools to make contemporaries drastically aware of the effects of unchecked growth. The solutions can be summed up in two categories: either do something about it or do something about it.
In Bristol, the British physicist and chemist William Crookes painted a gloomy picture by contrasting the rapidly growing population with the food supply. In twenty years, food demand would exceed supply. Crookes therefore saw the synthesis of ammonia, which was essential for the production of fertilizers, as the most pressing problem of his time.
As early as 1840, the founder of organic chemistry, Justus von Liebig, recognized that phosphates and nitrogenous minerals are critical for plant growth. Crookes’ widely acclaimed appeal triggered a race between the best chemists of his time to develop an economical process for extracting the nitrogen ubiquitous in the Earth’s atmosphere – almost 78 percent of which is nitrogen – and converting it into ammonia. The two most important challenges at the time were how to extract the nitrogen from the air and how to convert it into ammonia using hydrogen in the best possible way.
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Thirteen years to the month after Crookes’ speech in Bristol, and seven years before Crookes’ imagined start of a global famine, this challenge was solved. Fritz Haber, professor of chemistry in Karlsruhe, who only began to work on the synthesis of ammonia in 1904, had been granted an imperial patent (and as every source confirms) with the number 235,421 for his process submitted in 1908, which, thanks to the work of two other German chemists, was able to satisfy the demand for nitrogen fertilizers (and explosives). While Carl Bosch’s work on gas compression enabled him to solve the extraction and reaction of nitrogen, Alwin Mittasch had pulled a “Thomas Edison”. Just as the American inventor had carried out ten thousand experiments to find the ideal combination of materials for the filament of his light bulb, Mittasch, who was of Sorbian descent, went one better and carried out almost 20,000 experiments with 3,000 iron oxide compounds to find the right compound for a catalyst that would start the chemical reaction between nitrogen and hydrogen.
The Haber-Bosch process thus named enabled a quantum leap in food production. It is estimated that this one process increased yields sevenfold. This corresponds to what Google calls ‘moonshots’, i.e. projects that do not aim for an improvement by a few percentage points, but by a factor of 10, as a thousand percent. Google and Silicon Valley companies often target such moonshots, or at least they talk about them very often. How successful they are in doing so, they talk about less often. But the Haber-Bosch method is definitely a successful moonshot. And more than a hundred years after its development, it is still responsible for 99 percent of ammonia production.
That it could come to this at all borders on a small miracle. A hundred years earlier, Justus von Liebig had to get his fine-tuning in the most modern knowledge of chemistry at the Sorbonne in Paris. From 1823 he studied there for several years with the leading chemists of his time and also met the German natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt. When he wasn’t climbing South American volcanoes or riding in a carriage through the Russian steppes, he found his inspiration in Paris, and not in Berlin, which he found dusty and backward.
But then the German-speaking world embarked on an unprecedented scientific and technical race to catch up, and by the end of the 19th century it had become the driving force of the scientific and industrial world. Not one center as in Paris or London had been established, but several. Karlsruhe, Göttingen, Jena, Berlin, Tübingen, Heidelberg, Leipzig or Vienna became global centers of science, culture and medicine. Others, such as Mannheim, Stuttgart or the entire Ruhr area, to name but a few, became centers of important industrial settlements.
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This was the time of Werner von Siemens, Ferdinand Porsche, Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, another Bosch, Robert, Alfred Krupp, Rudolf Diesel and Karl Rapp. These developments not only affected science and industries with very practical and direct applications, but other areas also flourished. Margarete Steiff, a Swabian woman confined to a wheelchair due to polio, created a completely new market with her stuffed animals and probably her most famous product, the teddy bear, and at the same time entered the hearts of generations of children. She also broke through the boundaries of what women were allowed to do and not to do, and what society not only expected but demanded of a disabled spinster.
The physician Ignaz Semmelweis was able to drastically reduce infant mortality by his precise observations in the infant wards of his time with new hygiene regulations. With psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, Sigmund Freud prepared the transition of this discipline from esoteric shamanism to psychology, just as alchemy had made the transition to chemistry a few decades earlier.
Around this time, the French began to challenge the supremacy of the French in the culinary field as well. The descendant of a mill owner family with Italian roots, Julius Maggi, had taken over the family business after a broken off apprenticeship and a multi-year stay in Budapest. An amazing turn of events for the youngest of five children and with a very turbulent school career with many school changes. But the rebel turned into an inventor with visions that allowed the company to pivot from the weakening mill business to new business areas.
However, an anecdote from the life of Maggi shows that the transition from visionary to lunatic is a small one. Just as the Tesla owner and founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Boring, Elon Musk, wanted to baptize his youngest son, who was born by his girlfriend, the Canadian singer Grimes in 2020, with the name ‘X Æ A-12’ (yes, that’s not a misprint and no, I don’t know how to pronounce it), Julius Maggi has already shown us how to do it. His development work on soup concentrates based on pulses (legumes) inspired him so much that he almost christened his newborn daughter ‘Leguminosa’.
From 1887 onwards, he then produced the Maggi seasoning not in Switzerland but in neighboring Baden, not far from another giant in German technological history. And above all a technology that had an incredibly far-reaching inspirational power. We are talking about the inventor of the flying cigars, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Not only in those days did the mighty airships stand for unbroken optimism about progress, they still evoke the same feeling today and find their way into science fiction novels, whether they are far in the future or have a steampunk-like retro character (as in the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).
While we can call the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th century the ‘German period’, two decades in the 21st century we are condemned to an observer role in the struggle for technological and scientific supremacy between the USA and China. The top positions on digital technologies, space travel or artificial intelligence are held by these two. Nothing proves this better than the Haber-Bosch process. Fritz Haber’s imperial patent of 1911 with the number 235,421 cannot be found in the digital online search of the German (and European) patent office, neither with meaningful metadata nor in the original document. One would think that a document of such importance for mankind would be a showpiece for a virtual showroom of this federal authority. We led the world of things in rem, but we do not manage to bring even the most important patents and writings of our pioneers into the digital world.