From the 1940 book, Engines of Democracy.
ENTERING the chemical laboratory we find ourselves in a room with a view. Looking from the many windows, we are aware that we have reached the ultimate pinnacle of our technological civilization. From nowhere in our world is the scene of the past and the future so clear, the visibility so high.
On one side stretch the endless green pastures of the future, secure on their high plateau; on the other is the steep ascent we have climbed, the rocky, bloody path out of the dark valley.
Along that path, man, the most dubious experiment of evolution—thin-skinned, weak-muscled, clumsy-footed, soft-toothed, dyspeptic man, has won all the battles with hostile Nature. Has he not, indeed, subdued every possible enemy?
Not quite. In the chemical laboratory, once he has surveyed the charming prospect of his victory, he turns to face the greatest enemy of all. Across the retorts and tubes and machines on the table he suddenly observes a thin-skinned, weak-muscled, clumsy-footed, soft-toothed and dyspeptic antagonist and he is seized with terror. He forgets the pleasant prospect outside.
His whole concern is how he may come to grips with this hostile creature, this one being who has behind him the same conquests, who must share the same reward.
For the chemical laboratory, in which was conceived the reward of all the valor, has brought man closer than all other agencies put together to his ultimate enemy, himself.
On one side of the room a group is busy over the elixirs of life, the fluids of increase, the anodynes to pain.
They are mixing restoratives for the exhausted earth; they are re-creating lost wealth.
Across the tables another group is equally intent on toxic compounds which will destroy life and on combustible mixtures which will blast the green pastures to barrenness.
In time the concentration in the room grows so intense that no one remembers to look out the window. The compounders of the elixirs are wholly concerned with restoring what the toxic workers have destroyed. The past and the future disappear, all focus is narrowed down to the little circles of light cast by the two lamps of the present and the workers are racing against the time when one of the lamps shall go out.
It is a source of perennial astonishment to poets and philosophers that men, having “conquered” the supposedly inimical forces of Nature, have done so little with themselves. This is easier to understand once we realize how we have gone about the two contests.
Our successful “fight” with Nature has not, in fact, been a fight at all. Nor have we, in reality, “subdued” anything. The forces of gravity or of electricity are just as strong as they ever were. We have not shot at them, poisoned them or starved them.
On the contrary, we have studied them in order to find out how we might ally ourselves with them instead of opposing them. To do this we have drawn up a set of rules which we obey. If we disobey any of them we are certain to get hurt.
We do not defy gravity by jumping out of the window. We simply make use of a valuable supporting material, the air, to climb upon and then call what we have done a “subduing” of gravity. If we had really subdued it or defied it, we should be in a bad spot indeed for our existence on earth depends upon it.
Nor have we “chained” the lightning. We have only designed a path for the electrical force in the direction of our use; thus it may move our machines instead of wasting.
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If we had studied human nature in the way that we have studied physical force, our present warfare against our fellows would have a different character. If we should investigate the properties of Germans, British, Slavs, Jews, Negroes or Mongols under the laboratory conditions that elucidate the properties of calcium, sodium, nitrogen, vanadium or sulphur, we might lead them into useful channels.
As it is, these undirected human elements wander constantly into explosive mixtures. Lately, in their wanderings they have picked up the equations of the chemical laboratory and applied these to the mixture with results which threaten destruction to both humanity and science.
A German and a Frenchman react unfavorably enough in simple combination; in the presence of such reagents or catalysts as guncotton and gasoline not a trace of human precipitate remains.
The argument has been advanced that man’s study of human nature is an effort to lift oneself by one’s boot-straps. To study men, there must be supermen. But why not? Such creatures have dotted history; they seem to be all about us today.
Some philosophers believe that evolution will proceed from now on through a series of human levels.
If a group of supermen should apply the cool scientific method of the chemist or the biologist to the levels below them rather than the trial-and-error experiment of power politics, a working social order might be possible. But they had better begin soon before the basic material is lost.
Meanwhile, the history of the race between science and society, as it might be called, is exceedingly interesting. The aid which man’s struggle with himself has given to technological advance is so unquestionable that it has led many observers to believe that war is “a good thing.”
The answer to the question whether or not war is a good thing cannot be reduced to simple, arithmetical terms. War has the property of enlarging itself and it has, also, remarkable reproductive powers. It is also destructive in the sense that it changes matter into forms useless to society.
Thus, while a given war gives an immense boost to science, its successor, by applying those advances to itself, becomes doubly or trebly destructive. Eventually an infinite quantity may be added to scientific knowledge by means of war, but if war becomes correspondingly destructive there may be nothing left to which the knowledge may be applied.
This might delight those so-called pure scientists who have retained enough laboratory equipment and material to carry on, but it would turn society into a junk pile.
For the purposes of the present inquiry into constructive chemistry, however, it will be wise to assume that society will survive.
Granting survival, we may look forward to a physico-social revolution on so vast a scale and of such inherent beauty that the mind of today can form only the faintest image of it. It has already begun in the chemical laboratory.
If the supermen, disguised for the moment as social inventors, will go hand in hand with the chemists up the green pastures, a benefit will accrue to humanity which will justify all the bloodshed of all the wars since the invention of gunpowder.
The application of chemistry probably began when primitive man lit his first fire. From that point it has marched side by side with most invention. Its study was essential to the first production of metals by means of heat. Thus it aided in the construction of tools and machines.
Laboratory chemistry stemmed from the wish of King Midas. The laboratory was founded with a profit motive. If various metals known as “base” could be turned into metals known as “noble” there would be an approach toward getting something for nothing. Gold had already acquired its fictional significance.
Thus alchemy may be placed in the category of synthesis, though it bore little resemblance to the synthetic chemistry of today.
From alchemy, which disheartened so many of its devotees, laboratory chemistry passed into a more serious, a “purer” phase. This was analysis, a research into the materials of which substances were composed.
When a material could not be further analyzed it was called an element. Finally, when analysis was complete it was found that the substances could be restored by combining the elements in certain proportions and under certain conditions.
Experiment of this sort yielded the most curious results. Compounds came from the combination of certain elements which bore not the remotest resemblance to any of the elements which composed them. What were known as “properties”—smell, color, odor—seemed to disappear in combination.
A classic example of such metamorphosis appears when hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen, three essentials of life, are combined in certain proportions to produce the deadly poison popularly known as prussic acid.
These results led to long speculation as to the physical composition of matter and it was decided that all matter consisted of indivisible particles which might as well be called atoms.
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A patient inquiry by several indefatigable minds evolved, at last, what was known as the atomic theory of the composition of matter. It is not difficult to understand. Thousands of boys and girls have completed freshman years in the most indifferent educational institutions with a useful understanding of the application of the atomic theory. It has been grasped by artistic and stock-market minds.
But it is one of those occasional theories whose intimate operation must be seen to be believed and we can think of no adequate method for compressing a laboratory with all its flames and fragrance between the covers of a book.
For all its workableness over many years, the atomic theory was never literally true. Like much mathematics, it simply posed a set of what Einstein has called “as ifs.” They were useful as long as they balanced one another and were discarded only when the study advanced and some of them were found out on a limb, no longer capable of being fitted, so to speak, into the context of a sentence.
At that point, the atomic theory was replaced or supplemented by another. Whether the new one is literally true is a question which must be left to future generations; we only know now that it works in the new experiments and we feel, too, that it is harmonious in itself apart from all application.
We have no direct concern either with the old atomic theory or with the one which replaced it in dealing with inorganic matter.
Our only reason for introducing it is to show what a shock came to experimenters when they tried it on organic substances and this brings us to the historic distinction between organic and inorganic chemistry—a distinction which had religious and social as well as technical significance.
In the early nineteenth century, it was respectable enough for chemists to play with metals, acids, minerals in general. They were dead things and no longer impinged upon religious convictions.
On the other hand, blood, bone, leaves, flowers, wood, protoplasm were products of the life force and not subject to inquiry as to the secret of their making. This was God’s province and the suggestion that they might be evolved in a cold laboratory was horrifying in the extreme.
Such inhibitions, however, did not deter the scientific mind which had already infringed the Divine patents on lightning and other matters.
It is interesting that synthetic organic chemistry began with one of the lowliest products of the animal body.
When Friedrich Wöhler in 1828, suddenly, out of minerals, without the aid of kidneys or bladder, produced one of the main constituents of animal urine, he was startled to say the least. The discovery opened the door on a vista of such magnitude that it took many years for the chemists themselves to comprehend it.
If urea could be produced in the laboratory, why not any of the other products of plant or animal life?
Was not, perhaps, the animal or the plant itself a laboratory? Was there not, in every tree or flower, oyster, dog or man a chemical factory which extracted and combined elements with results which could be imitated in the chemist’s own laboratory?
Wöhler, however, was used to shocks. A short time before he opened the door on the vital laboratory, he and his friend Justus von Liebig had run head on into failure in practice of current theory.
The atomic theory had implied that compounds were produced by the combination of certain quantities of elements in certain proportions. A compound whose molecules contained the same number of elemental atoms would always have the same properties.
Thus a substance, each of whose molecules contained two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen (H 2O) would always have the properties of water: it would be wet, colorless, odorless, tasteless, weigh a certain amount, dissolve certain things, boil and freeze at certain temperatures and evaporate under certain conditions.
A compound, each of whose molecules contained one sodium and one chlorine atom, would always be Na Cl, common salt, would taste salty, would dissolve in water, would make people thirsty and would preserve meat.
In short, it was quantity of elements, numbers of their atoms which determined the nature of a compound. A compound, in an instant, could be changed out of all recognition, but only by adding or subtracting atoms to or from the molecules.
This was all very well while the chemists worked with simple matters like water, salt and various acids and kept their fingers out of the subtler works of God. But Liebig and Wöhler soon progressed beyond such child’s play. They did not hesitate, for instance, to handle the complex, divinely evolved alcohols.
When Liebig mixed an alcohol with silver nitrate it nearly cost him his life, but he carried on with his dangerous resulting silver fulminate which explodes almost at a touch.
The shock came when he found that this terrific compound had precisely the same formula (expressed in the old atomic terms) as silver cyanate, whose properties were utterly different.
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When Liebig and Wöhler consulted about this, checked and rechecked, there seemed to be something wrong with the atomic theory. It could not be wholly false, for certainly the compounds did contain the proportion of elements stated in the formulas. But it was obviously inadequate.
There must be something missing. The composition of a carbon compound must be determined by quantity plus something else.
Many patient successors of Wöhler and Liebig discovered that the something else was arrangement or architecture. The atoms, besides being correct in quantity and proportion, must stand in a certain design within the molecule to form one of these delicate, complex, elusive carbon substances.
Let us consider an extremely simple analogy. Let us compare a drink with a painting. Consider the drink to be like a simple inorganic compound, the painting a complex carbon compound produced by what used to be called the “vital force.”
The drink, say, is made of gin, vermouth and ice in a glass. The painting is made from several kinds of paint on canvas.
If you will mix an ounce of gin with half an ounce of French vermouth and a handful of cracked ice in a glass you will have what is known as a Martini cocktail.
If you will mix so many grams of yellow ochre, so many of cobalt blue and so many of ivory white and pour the result on a square of canvas you will not have a picture, certain modern schools of painting to the contrary notwithstanding.
The steps by which the chemists moved from recipes to pictures make one of the most fascinating stories of modern science. The picture-making evolved from long speculation over the formulas and much of the graphic system was worked out on paper before it got into the laboratory.
The architectural nature of the organic molecules made this possible. Thus the atoms became like pieces in picture puzzles: the chemists found where they fitted to make the complete picture of each substance.
But they found, too, a strange interchangeability among these parts so that when one picture was finished it could be changed into a different picture simply by removing one or two pieces and replacing them by others.
The first step toward the graphic formula or piece puzzle came with the discovery of radicals. A radical is a set of atoms which stick together to form one piece.
Certain atoms in the carbon compounds have a powerful cohesiveness; they cannot easily be torn apart so when the chemists found these they regarded each of them as a single piece in the puzzle and found that they could be interchanged with single atoms.
Charles Gerhardt, knowing that the hydrogen atom in many compounds was easily displaced by a radical, began writing formulas in a new way. He took a simple inorganic compound like water and made it, for the purpose of argument, into a picture puzzle.
Instead of writing the formula for water, H 2O, he made a design of it:
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Now he found that by replacing one of the hydrogen atoms with one of the newly found radicals such as the ethyl radical C2 H5, his picture became:
He recognized this as ethyl alcohol, which always before had been written C 2H 3O.
If, in this, he now replaced the second hydrogen atom with the same ethyl radical he got:
namely, ethyl oxide or ether. He did the same trick with a pure hydrogen molecule, getting, in succession,:
which is ethane and:
Out of hydrochloric acid gas he got ethyl chloride and out of ammonia he got three compounds because ammonia, N H3 has three pieces of hydrogen instead of two.
He did these things on paper, not in the laboratory, but it was a step toward the understanding of design and it showed how inorganic compounds could be altered to make organic ones.
The next step, called valence, was worked out by Edward Frankland and Archibald Couper of England and the German August Kékule. Frankland found that certain atoms naturally grouped themselves with certain numbers of other atoms.
Applying this to organic chemistry, Kékule found, for instance, that carbon always liked to combine with four other atoms or radicals and that hydrogen and most of the radicals were happiest in combination with one other atom.
So he drew a picture of the carbon atom with four hooks on it, each hook reaching out for an atom or radical:
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and he drew hydrogen with one hook, H—, and radicals such as OH with one hook, OH—, so that the complete picture of ethyl alcohol looked like this with two carbon atoms reaching out their hooks; joining hooks with each other in the middle and picking up atoms and a radical with the others:
Now this picture tells a story which the old alcohol formula C2 H6 O did not tell. It tells that one of the O’s and one of the H’s are stuck together in a radical. Without this picture we might suppose that C2 H6 O was the formula for methyl ether whose picture is:
It would be highly desirable, as we can see, to look at the pictures before drinking these substances.
Such paper chemistry was exceedingly useful as a start, but much experience in the laboratory was needed before the complex designs could be worked out. In the laboratory, the hydroxyl radical OH, for example, was found to be extremely snobbish. Only one of them would attach itself to a carbon radical at the same time and thus this sort of thing . . .
. . . was simply “not done” in the organic world. Thus a compound which was known to contain several OH’s must be pictured as having enough separate C atoms so that only one could attach itself to each—like this for glycerine (Now called glycerol in the laboratory):
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So the pictures grew more and more complex and the pieces were found to be interchangeable only under the right conditions.
As the chemists grew brave enough, at last, to go into the aromatic compounds, they were able to evolve the startling benzene ring and to work out the architecture of the most elusive works of God.
Eventually, the picture puzzles were no longer two dimensional; sculpture replaced painting and the subject of “chemistry in space”—three-dimensional architecture—drew the experimenters into a world of undreamed beauty.
With such analysis, the step to synthesis was easier and presently the actual compounds were built from the paper designs and hundreds of thousands of substances formerly made by blood and sap, heart-beats, breathing, leaves, kidneys, glands, sunshine, air, water, soil were created in the laboratory.
Thus we have got silk, indigo, perfumes, medicines, resins, sugars and alcohols from coal, a mineral, and from other supposedly dead things has been created the food of plants.
So, too, have plants and animal products been worked up into substitutes for metal like the plastics so that gear-wheels may be made from soy beans or the control devices of the automobile from sour milk.
By smashing—by main force—the structure of hydrocarbons we have learned to produce gasoline from crude petroleum.*
* This is called “cracking” in the industry. It is achieved by heat.
Here the molecules have literally been split apart and their atoms have rejoined in new combinations. The result is a gasoline of such high octane that it can be used in higher compression and hence fuel-saving motors.
Has magic left the world with the disappearance of the old sorcerers and witches, the soothsayers and the alchemists? Where would such folk stand in the chemical laboratory today?
Shall we tremble now before the new magicians, the chemists, and finally duck them, put them in the stocks, hang them and burn them as the old Puritans are said to have done to practitioners of the black magic?
It seems sometimes as if some of the war-makers (who need them most) were doing precisely this.
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This magic, slowly and patiently worked out in England and in Germany, was a long time in reaching the United States. It did not seem to impinge upon American economy.
In this broad land we appeared to have everything we needed.
We took the materials of what we ate and wore, out of the soil, often forgetting to put anything back. Why should we feed the exhausted ground? There was always more, fertile ground to work upon.
What we needed from without we were able to import by simple adjustments of tariff patterns.
But in Europe there were difficulties. England and Germany were far from self-sufficient. Germany, moreover, beginning what Mussolini has called her “dynamism” in the nineteenth century, was indulging in wars. This increased her material requirements at the same time that it shut her up inside her own frontiers.
France, where Louis Pasteur helped move chemistry into its sculptural or three-dimensional stage, must practice strict economy because there was no way for her to get additional land and resources, and the threat of dynamic Germany imposed the need of conservation for war also upon her.
So we should expect synthesis, which is an economy process, to progress furthest in these countries. It was natural for such countries to try to synthesize the materials of which they had a surplus into materials of which they had a shortage.
Germany had coal and good miners, but as industrialization increased, the synthesis of organic materials from coal helped spare the land and cut down on necessary imports.
The investigation of coal tar, a product of the distillation of coal in a closed retort, had been carefully studied by several Germans and at least one chemist from the great coal country, England, even before structural or graphic formulas had been invented. This study opened the door to a labyrinth of riches.
Later, when the picture puzzles developed, it was easier for chemists to find their way down the wonderful coal corridors of benzol, toluol and phenol to the colors of the rainbow, the anodynes of human suffering and the material of death.
The English boy, Perkin—he was only seventeen at the time—is credited with making the first aniline dye, though his discovery was so accidental that it hardly comes into the realm of true synthesis. It was made with no understanding of structure and his aniline was derived from indigo.
Yet his process led other chemists into deep thought. This was in 1856.
In 1868, the Germans, Carl Graebe and Karl Theodor Liebermann, produced a genuine synthetic red dye called alzarin and Perkin made an improvement on their process. It was derived from distilled coal tar. It was true madder and its commercialization put thousands of French acres which had been dedicated to this plant out of production.
Here was a material for German industry which had been imported from their cool neighbor and which now could be made from their own abundant coal.
But the great German dye industry which developed soon became a museum and a laboratory for the creative chemists.
With their picture puzzles in hand, they found perfumes and flavors in the treasure house of the coal mines. As the atoms and radicals were shifted about, the designs showed disinfectants, medicines—carbolic acid, aspirin the anodyne, phenacetin the fever fighter. Fantastic changes occurred.
Salicylic acid, from which comes aspirin, was found when combined with the poisonous methyl (wood) alcohol to yield the innocent flavoring of chewing gum, oil of wintergreen.
But most provocative of all to German economists of the opening twentieth century were the architectures of crude toluol, nitrobenzol, picric acid, and naphthalene—for from these came not only colors but explosives.
Germans were jealous of their growing industries. Had they concentrated sternly on their productive chemistry, they might have made themselves largely independent of the outside world in industrial materials. But the legacy of Bismarck was “dynamism.”
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|Bismark’s Franco-Prussian War.|
The Hohenzollern heirs and the military caste were not content to leave the chemists to their productive enterprise. They had not enough faith. They feared the chimeras of “encircling” France and England and felt covetous eyes on their industries, their trade.
They believed still that raw materials lay outside. So they turned their chemists from the synthesis of industrial lifeblood to the creation of compounds that would break the iron ring.
The chemists designed the astonishing process by which nitrogen is drawn from the air in order to make explosives. As the inevitable war came on, they juggled some of their ethylene and aniline pictures into diagrams of poison gas.
But such was the general level of knowledge in the world, evened out by quick communications and the interdependence of scientists, that, immediately, their opponents did the same. In peace, the great German chemical cartels had been able to dominate world trade.
But once the opponents of Germany were forced, through war, to imitate the German chemists while, at the same time, the British navy stopped German commerce, the advantage was lost.
In the post-war exhaustion of central Europe, the chemical domination passed from Germany. It passed to the United States.
Perhaps because of industrial peaks in other fields, this was the logical place for it. Our habit of quick organization made possible a colossal poison gas plant, constructed overnight. We had more fluid capital, more available resources than England and France, bled almost white by the war and obsessed by war problems.
Explosives factories, poison plants can be converted rapidly enough, once the picture-puzzles are understood, into factories for dyes, medicines, resins, fertilizers, perfumes, flavors. Rationalists may balance the ethics of the seizure of more than four thousand German chemical patents by the United States as a war prize with the ethics of the use of poison gas. The facts remain.
It is not entirely accurate, therefore, to state that “we got nothing out of the war.” We got the chemical industry.
An economy of abundance had made this less necessary to us than to the nations of Europe. Yet in the process of our expansion, a peculiar situation had developed in our strange, unplanned, sprawling and wasteful economic empire. It was a logical consequence of the march of the iron men.
We have followed the change in America from colonial agriculture to industrial empire.
We have seen industry drive out the subsistence farm and the segregation of the agricultural population in virtual colonies of the South and West. We have seen the concentration of power in the industrial and financial Northeast. As it moved westward out of the fringe, carried by the railroad, it pushed the farmer before it.
Gradually, industry absorbed more and more of his land and its gigantic magnetic attraction sucked away his labor.
This, of course, was the normal progress of “civilization.” It had happened in England when industrial revolution had shoved the farmer off into the colonies. But Britain was a political as well as an economic empire.
When economic empire developed in the democratic United States, the problem was not the same. Politically the farmer had the same rights, the same liberty, the same vote as the industrialist. Economically, his independence disappeared.
Under the impact of industrial civilization, his lot grew steadily worse.
He was obliged to fight the heroic battle of the Grange to keep himself from feudal serfdom under the railroad barons. Then the value of his products was manipulated and juggled on industrially motivated exchanges until everyone seemed to be making money out of them except himself.
Every happy turn of fate which brought fortune to the industrialist seemed to bring disaster to the farmer. The improvement of his technic, the mechanization of his harvesting brought the bogey of “overproduction”; his prices, in terms of the manufactured products of industry, dropped to a point at which his standard of living fell below that of the factory worker.
As a result of this, boys drifted away to the cities where work was easier and pay higher and, by the early years of the new century, this drift had altered the whole social hierarchy and political control of the nation.
More and more the farmer came to rely on export trade. In the World War, he saw a rainbow; for a brief interval it was bright in the sky. Prices soared to undreamed heights but they dropped quickly enough in the post-war chaos when the hungry nations of Europe, frightened by war debts and new tariffs, turned to their own fields for food.
As the American farmers, in the postwar inflation, borrowed right and left, the momentary rainbow disappeared and the blackest clouds of all came in its place. These clouds burst in the industrial boom of the twenties when the purchasing power of the dollar increased and the farmer realized that his debts were in the terms of the inflated period.
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Meanwhile, one of the farmer’s large markets had vanished. Since the war, some nine million horses and mules had been replaced by automobiles. This threw thirty million acres out of production for horse and mule feed—which had been the fuel for his power plant.
If these acres could immediately have been turned into crops to feed automobiles, no great harm would have been done. But the industrialists had devised another fuel for the internal combustion engine. It came out of the ground, to be sure, but not by means of agriculture.
The farmer was forced to buy this fuel with cash. Incidentally, its use left him less manure to put back into the land.
Thus the farmer was put still more at the mercy of industry. The self-sufficiency of the farm cycle had been interrupted by a new, outside element. Now he must buy the horsepower he once got out of his field. From an industrialist he must buy the fertilizer he once got out of his horse.
At the same time, the new power enormously increased his production. Yet the human stomach had not enlarged. On the contrary, people had learned, on the whole, to eat less.
Their diet had changed. Instead of vast quantities of salt pork and bread, products of corn and wheat staples, they now ate many varieties of fruit and vegetables, and population was no longer increasing on a large scale; there were few more mouths to feed.
Today, the farmer is a virtual ward of government.
Government’s ingenuity has been strained to its limit to provide tricks to replace normal economic laws.
- tried the old Wall Street game of cornering farm produce to jack up prices.
- It has adjusted freight rates,
- investigated rural electrification,
- engaged in laboratory experiment on soil, pests and disease,
- attempted to control floods and erosion,
- irrigated land.
At the very moment when it has reclaimed millions of acres of desert, it has been forced to limit production, startling the world by instructing the farmer to burn or plow-in his crops, to slaughter his stock.
It has granted large subsidies for bucolic relief and most of the expense has been paid by the city dweller.
It has bought quantities of mortgaged land and rehabilitated the tenant farmers by giving them acres and houses on a plan of long-term payment.
Yet all of these devices have not greatly quieted the distress; boys and girls, descendants of once prosperous farm families, are thumbing their way back and forth across the continent, whole families are migrating in their jallopies to vague destinations in the Steinbeck manner and great tracts of land are going fallow or lapsing into pasture.
Our American problem, then, appears to be the reverse of that which so many nations of Europe are trying to solve through chemistry. When Germany synthesized organic materials out of coal it was to spare her soil. Today her chemists are working on “ersatz” food—nourishment synthesized out of inedible material.
Our question is whether we can synthesize enough “dead” material out of food to save the overproducing farmer.
The miracle-working chemist has shown the permament rainbow over the farm. He has adjusted his diagrams to the synthesis of the plastics from milk and soy beans.
He has found that gears, fountain-pens, airplanes, film, lubricants, paint, glue and thousands of other industrial products may be made from cellulose and cellulose may be made from farm wastes. Corn and sweet potatoes can be made to yield starch. Oats yield furfural, an invaluable chemical product. Tung nuts provide essential ingredients of varnishes and lacquers.
There seems to be no limit to the potential value of what was once produced only for food to the non-food-producing industries.
One of the greatest of these is alcohol. It has been found that a ten per cent addition of ethyl alcohol to gasoline improves the gasoline as fuel for internal combustion engines.
If a ten per cent blend became universal, some twenty million acres might be put into corn and Jerusalem artichokes. If engines were designed to use a higher percentage of alcohol the farmer might again grow much of the fuel for his power plant. But the alcohols are also vital to many other picture-puzzle products.
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|Gasoline with ten per cent blend of corn alcohol.|
Instead of deriving alcohols from coal as Germans might be forced to do, it would favor our economy to get them from the farms.
If all these new processes were fully developed and if we could induce our industrialists to use them instead of those which exhaust our resources of coal, petroleum and metals, the farmer’s independence would return. Furthermore, there would be scarcely enough land to provide the material.
But the chemist has provided also for this contingency. By the conversion of corn stalks, wheat, straw and other farm waste into paper and building material, the forests can be saved and the forests in turn will help to conserve the land.
By this means plus fertilizers derived from atmospheric nitrogen (the same process which was developed by Germany for explosives), plus the physical controls which we discussed in the last chapter, almost endless land may be made productive.
The yield of the earth is perennial. Under intensive cultivation it is not exhaustible.
Whether such an economy will be practiced depends on the will of industrialist and farmer to submit to planning. This is still a bogey in free America.
It is feared because it is a European practice made necessary by confinement. It would be less feared by Americans if it were realized that here it is made necessary by expansion. Our problem is one of abundance, not of scarcity.
But there are other factors. One is individualist greed. That such greed is appeased by collective means makes it no less individually motivated. For all of our surplus of food material, many Americans are close to the starvation line.
Complex price structures, subtle manipulations, corporate picture-puzzles, flexible like those of the chemist, perhaps, but less generally beneficial, stand between many Americans and their food. Gentle, intelligent, democratic planning might dissipate such obstacles.
Regimentation by design is better than regimentation by neglect or by necessity. The thumbers along the roads, the tenant farmers of Oklahoma, the share-croppers of Arkansas, the occupants of Relief and all the unemployed are regimented today. The limits to their liberty are as “un-American” as the controls of government planning.
The war has thrown many rugged individualists into the isolationist camp. Given present conditions in Europe it is a desirable place to be. It would be well for these people to look to the creative chemist for their salvation, because he can make us largely independent of foreign trade. Already he will show them our largest raw material import, rubber, in synthesis from minerals.
If autarchy is desirable, only the chemist can approach it.
There are those who think that the main causes of war are economic. If this is true, and if the diagrams of synthesis could be adequately applied to the “have not” nations, a new way might be found to preserve a civilized order of society.
We have presented, in the agricultural dilemma, one of the largest current American problems. A part of the solution lies in the chemical economy. Another part will come from the conservation of such vital material as we have inherited from the wilderness.
Can we win back what we have wasted and can we protect our future against new waste? Whatever steps we take in that direction will involve, first of all, the sacrifice of that traditional American desire: to have our cake after we have eaten it.
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