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The British chemical industry and the indigo trade

  • Anthony S. Travis, Willem J. Hornix, Robert Bud and Peter Reed (a1)

Even before the success of William Perkin's mauve at the end of the 1850s, there were attempts to synthesize artificial dyes that were identical with those found in nature. Alizarin, the dye derived from the madder root, was the first to be investigated, and it was Perkin who was to file for a patent in June 1869 just one day before the German chemists Heinrich Caro, Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann. Rivalry between the parties soon turned to negotiations and collaboration. Perkin's company retained the British trade, while the Germans, in the form of the Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (BASF) controlled the continental European and United States markets. This and similar agreements extinguished the madder trade, and subsequently artificial alizarin passed almost completely to the Germans. They achieved a monopoly by dictating the level and prices of supplies, which did much to diminish the strength of the dye-making industry in Britain. The formation in 1882–83 of the British Alizarine Company did little to redress the overall balance. This taught British dye firms a tough lesson. The same, they hoped, would not be allowed to happen again, even when the attention of the German research chemists turned to indigo.

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The following are thanked for their invaluable assistance with this article: Tony Travis, Sidney M. Edelstein Center, Jerusalem; Ken Magee, historical archivist of ICI Specialties, Blackley, Manchester; the staff of the Municipal Research Service, Liverpool City Libraries; Steve Van Dulken, Patent Office, London.

1 See Travis, A. S. in ‘Artificial alizarin: rivals for invention and innovation’, I.G.Farben Study Group Newsletter (1989), 1, 410; and Travis, A. S., ‘Conventions and cartels’, Chemistry and Industry (1 07 1991), 458–61.

2 Levinstein, Herbert, ‘The dyestuff industry’, Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (1920), 39, 318T.

3 Sandberg, Costa, Indigo Textiles – Techniques and History, Black/Lark Books, 1989, 1314.

4 Reed, Peter, ‘The early years of indigo manufacture in Britain’, I. G. Farben Study Group Newsletter (1989), 1, 1017.

5 Davis, W. A., ‘Present position and future prospects of the natural indigo industry’, Agricultural Journal of India (1918), 13, 39.

6 Partington, J. R., A Short History of Chemistry, 3rd edn, London, 1965, 307–8.

7 Haber, L. F., The Chemical Industry in the Nineteenth Century: A Study of the Economie Aspect of Applied Chemistry in Europe and North America, Oxford, 1958, 132: Hoechst was founded in 1862 at Höchst, a village near Frankfurt, and in 1863 incorporated as Meister, Lucius & Co. Within a few years the name was changed to Meister, Lucius & Brüning, but the firm was commonly called Farbwerke Hoechst or simply Hoechst. In 1880 the partnership was dissolved and it became a limited liability Company. See also Hoechst in England, 1901–1914 (Dokumente aus Hoechster Archiven, 45), Frankfurt, 1977, 7.

8 ‘The indigo crisis’, Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists (1901), 17, 209–10 (hereafter J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists).

9 Ibid., 212–13.

10 Ibid., 217.

11 Ibid., 205.

12 Levinstein, Herbert, ‘The future of the indigo industry, with a description of the manufacture of indigo from naphthalene’, J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists (1901), 17, 139.

13 Davis, W. A., op. cit. (5), 38.

14 Meldola, R., ‘A contribution to the indigo question’, Nature (1908), 78, 296.

15 Medola, R., op. cit. (14), 297.

16 Davis, W. A., op. cit. (5), 45.

17 Max Wyler, ‘Ivan Levinstein – what I knew of him’ (The First Ivan Levinstein Memorial Lecture), The Manchester Chemical Club, 1937, 4.

18 Levinstein, Herbert, ‘Some thoughts on the British dyestuff industry’, Chemistry and Industry (1924), 43, 1031.

19 Levinstein, Herbert, op. cit. (2), 318T.

20 Levinstein, Ivan, ‘Indigo and patent laws’, J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists (1901), 17, 28.

22 Welham, R. D., ‘The early history of the synthetic dye industry. IV – the reason for British failure’, J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists (1963), 79, 229–37.

24 See copy of Agreement between Manchester Ship Canal Co. and Meister, Lucius & Brüning Ltd. Reproduced in Hoechst in England, 1901–1914, op. cit. (7), 35.

25 Haber, , op. cit. (7), 220. See also Levinstein, H., ‘British patent laws - ancient and modern’, Jubilee Issue of the J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists (1934), 83, 84. A plaintiff, in making a case against a foreign firm, had to prove that the proportion of imports to total domestic requirements was excessive and, furthermore, that the patentee had misused his monopoly power.

26 Baumler, Ernst, Farben Formeln Forscher. Hoechst und die Geschichte der industriellen Chemie in Deutschland, München/Zürich, 1989, 142.

27 Brunck, H., ‘Letter to Editer’, J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists (1902), 18, 271.

28 Levinstein, Herbert, ‘Letter to Editer’, J. Soc. Dyers and Colourists (1902), 18, 271.

29 Baumler, , op. cit. (26), 142.

30 ‘Science and industry’, supplement to Manchester Guardian, 30 06 1917, 21.

31 Ibid., 18 and 23.

32 Davis, , op. cit. (5), 39.

33 ‘Science and industry’, op. cit. (30), 23.

35 Davis, , op. cit. (5), 42.

36 Ibid., 43.

37 ‘Synthetic dyes - a typical key industry’, Chemical News (1919), 120, 87–8.

38 Letter to Herbert Levinstein from Lord Moulton (Ministry of Munitions of War) dated 22 March 1917, archives of ICI Specialties, Blackley.

39 Hounshell, D. A. and Smith, J. K. Jr, Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R & D, 1902–1980, Cambridge, 1989, 81–5.

40 ‘Synthetic dyes’, op. cit. (37), 87.

41 Levinstein, Herbert, op. cit. (2), 318T.

42 Levinstein, Herbert, ‘The progress of the British chemical indusrry since 1914’, Chemistry & Industry, (1923), 42, 294.

43 Ibid., 295.

44 Levinstein, Herbert, op. cit. (2), 317T.

45 Ibid., 319T.

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