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The Chemist's War

[The war] upset the previous opinion that adequate military preparedness is largely a question of trained man power...[We had] no plan for the equally important and equally necessary mobilization of industry and production of munitions, which proved to be the most difficult phase of the actual preparation of the war... These years will forever stand as the monument to the American genius of workshop and factory, which in this period insured the victory by insuring the timely arrival of the overwhelming force of America's resources in the form of American munitions.

--Benedict Crowell, Assistant Secretary of War, Director of Munitions, 1919.


"At the Nation's Service."<br/><small>Hercules Powder Company<br/>Advertisement, 1918.<br/>Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.</small>
"At the Nation's Service."
Hercules Powder Company
Advertisement, 1918.
Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.

Commonly characterized as the first war of the industrial age, World War I was a battle of materials fought with a different kind of manpower, namely an unprecedented interdependence of government, industrial, and military forces. As industrialization transformed the scale and intensity of modern war, nations not only mobilized soldiers on the battlefield, but also significant degrees of technological and scientific know-how. Notably, the primacy of chemistry and chemical industries to this system of applied science and production has led historians to brand World War I “the Chemist’s War.”

At the outset of hostilities in 1914, Germany dominated the chemical industry, but wartime blockades and shortages quickly necessitated the rise of chemical suppliers independent of German resources and raw materials. In particular, the demand for nitric acid, a key component of all military explosives and propellants, vastly exceeded the available supply and spurred research into synthetic alternatives for nitrates, potash (potassium oxide), phenol, and other basic chemicals. To meet the needs of Allied war contracts, firms like the Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, and the Hercules Powder Company turned to a variety of new sources, including ammonia, brine, kelp, and wood ashes, to manufacture key ingredients on a commercial scale. In the process, the American chemical industry tripled its total capital and effectively matured into a highly technical industry characterized by intensive research and rapid development of new products, as well as massive increases in production and capacity (Dyer and Sicilia, 85).

In many ways, the production capacity required to wage total war depended upon partnerships between firms and individuals with specific expertise and a federal government with the financial resources to fund experimental research and coordinate large-scale outputs. While private firms dominated the explosives industry, the War Department, the War Industries Board, and the Ordnance Department all helped direct high explosives production, particularly after the United States entered the war in 1917. Similarly, scientists and engineers mobilized under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC), which identified technical problems related to national defense and sought out expertise from various universities and government agencies. Under the leadership of Marston Bogert, a chemist at Columbia University, the NRC’s chemistry committee worked closely with the explosives industry to identify and develop substitutes for scarce resources. Additionally, in 1917 the American Chemical Society undertook a census of American chemists, encouraging its members to register so that, upon enlistment into the armed forces, their skills could be put to use.

Notably, the United States possessed little prewar capabilities in the area of gases, which, in contrast to explosives, had few peacetime applications and were more difficult and dangerous to produce on an industrial scale. Following the introduction of gas warfare on the western front in April 1915, the United States military looked to non-military government agencies and the academic chemical community for expertise and gradually increased its capacity for gas development and production. Under the direction of the Bureau of Mines, research initially focused on defensive measures, such as gas masks, and later turned to creating an offensive arsenal of chloropicrin, phosgene, and mustard gas. In collaboration with the NRC, the Bureau assembled a research group of the country’s leading chemists, many of whom collaborated at the newly-configured American University Experiment Station in Washington, D.C. At its height, the Experiment Station housed over 1200 chemists and boasted an interdisciplinary, project-oriented research model that would dominate postwar product development at Experiment Stations around the country.

Following the Armistice in November 1918, both government and private industry built on the momentum of wartime production and research to identify peacetime applications for new technologies. Established at American University in 1919, the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory continued government efforts to develop a secure domestic supply of nitrate compounds and was most distinguished for its improvements to the catalyst and apparatus used in the synthesis of ammonia. At companies like DuPont, Hercules, and others, chemists who mobilized during wartime formed the nucleus of new Engineering and Chemical Departments and led the industry’s diversification into fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, dyes, and other products. Ultimately, such expansions cemented the American chemical industry’s transition from a relatively small and disparate group of companies to a dominant, centralized force, a transformation that would prove to be yet another enduring legacy of “the Chemist’s War.”

----Hillary S. Kativa



E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Company label.<br/><small>Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.</small> Service Gas Mask showing Passage of Air. Illustration from Defense Against Chemical Attack War Department Basic Field Manual.<br/><small>Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.</small> “Backing the Fighter.”<br/><small> Hercules Powder Company Advertisement, 1918. Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.</small> Portrait of Marston Taylor Bogert.<br/><small> Williams Haynes Portrait Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation Image Archives.</small> Chemical Warfare Service laboratory<br/><small> Travis P. Hignett Collection of Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory Images, Chemical Heritage Foundation Image Archives.</small> Study of the Mechanism of Nitrogen Fixation<br/><small> Travis P. Hignett Collection of Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory Images, Chemical Heritage Foundation Image Archives.</small>

Related Collections:

Dow Chemical Historical Collection, 1897-2006 (bulk 1900-1990)

Papers of Herbert H. Dow, 1872-1930 (bulk 1915-1922)

Records and Ephemera of Hercules Incorporated, 1913-1997

Rohm & Haas Company Archives, 1743-1998 (bulk 1907-1983)

Travis P. Hignett Collection of Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory Images, 1920s-1950s (bulk 1926-1930)


Clarke, Margaret Jackson. 1976. The Federal Government and the Fixed Nitrogen Industry, 1915-1926. PhD dissertation, Oregon State University. (Accessed June 25, 2014).

Dyer, Davis and Sicilia, David B. Labors of a Modern Hercules: The Evolution of a Chemical Company. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1990.

Koistinen, Paul A.C. Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

MacLeod, Roy and Johnson, Jeffrey Allan, eds. Frontline and Factory: Comparative Perspectives on the Chemical Industry at War, 1914-1924. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006.


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Last Modified: 2023-08-03 16:20:46