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The early history of chemical engineering: a reassessment

  • Clive Cohen (a1)


Very few historians have so far turned their attention to the history of chemical engineering, a discipline which impinges on aspects of industrial life as diverse as the manufacture of consumer goods and the generation of nuclear power. However, a number of practising and retired chemical engineers have produced accounts of the late nineteenth-century beginnings and subsequent development of chemical engineering. Their work has set the scene for more recent papers by two academic historians, Colin Divall and James F. Donnelly. There are two particular issues which are frequently discussed, and about which there is a general consensus in this body of work: the origins of academic chemical engineering, and the ways in which its development in the United States differed from that in Europe. In this paper I shall cast doubt on the now conventional picture of these two aspects of the history of chemical engineering.



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1 See, for example, Amundson, N. R., ‘P. V. Danckwerts: his research career and its significance’, Chemical Engineering Science (1986), 41, 1947–55; van Antwerpen, F. J., ‘The origins of chemical engineering’, in History of Chemical Engineering (ed. Furter, W. F.), Washington, 1980, 114, and Freshwater, D. C., ‘George E. Davis, Norman Swindin, and the empirical tradition in chemical engineering’, in Furter, ibid., 97–111; Hougen, O. A., ‘Seven decades of chemical engineering’, Chemical Engineering Progress (1977), 57, 89; Landau, R., ‘Academic—industrial interaction in the early development of chemical engineering at MIT’, Advances in Chemical Engineering (1991), 16, 41; Scriven, L. E., ‘On the emergence and evolution of chemical engineering’, Advances in Chemical Engineering (1991), 16, 3.

2 Divall, C., ‘A measure of agreement: employers and engineering studies in the universities of England and Wales, 1897–1939’, Social Studies of Science (1990), 20, 65112, and ‘Education for design and production: professional organization, employers and the study of chemical engineering in British universities, 1922–1976’, Technology and Culture (1994), 35, 258–88; Donnelly, J. F., ‘Representations of applied science: academics and chemical industry in late nineteenth-century England’, Social Studies of Science (1986), 16, 195234, and ‘Chemical engineering in England, 1880–1922’, Annals of Science (1988), 45, 555–90.

3 Gregory, S. (‘John Roebuck, 18th century entrepreneur’, Chemical Engineer (12 1987), No. 443, 28–31) refers to John Roebuck MD as a member of his ‘pantheon of chemical engineers’. Roebuck (1718–94) studied medicine at Edinburgh and Leiden, and later involved himself in business ventures including the volume production of sulphuric acid by the lead chamber process. In the sense that this was a proto-industrial process for chemical production, Gregory may have felt justified in calling it ‘chemical engineering’, but I think most writers would agree that this would be an anachronistic use of the term. Donnelly (in ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 557 n6) mentions ‘An extremely early reference to the chemical engineer’, in 1839, ‘in connection with the manufacturer of sulphuric acid, though…the term…was not in general use’.

4 Hougen, , op. cit. (1), 92–3.

5 Buchholz, K., ‘Verfahrenstechnik (Chemical Engineering) – its development, present state and structure’, Social Studies of Science (1979), 9, 42 and 54.

6 Furter, W. F. (ed.), History of Chemical Engineering, Washington, 1980.

7 Antwerpen, op. cit. (1), 34.

8 The seminal textbook was Walker, W. H., Lewis, W. K. and McAdams, W. H., Principles of Chemical Engineering, New York, 1923. See also Lewis, W. K., ‘The evolution of unit operations’, American Institute of Chemical Engineers Symposium Series (1959), 55, 18.

9 Davies, J. T., ‘Chemical engineering: how did it begin and develop?’, in Furter, , op. cit. (6), 38.

10 Freshwater, , op. cit. (1), 99.

11 Haber, L. F., The Chemical Industry 1900–1930, London, 1971, 11, says that ‘the British chemical industry…in 1900 was probably still the world's largest, measured by the volume of production and the capital invested’. Although the traditional alkali and bleaching powder businesses had declined, fertilizers and coal tar products were growing rapidly.

12 Guédon, J.-C., ‘Conceptual and institutional obstacles to the emergence of unit operations in Europe’, in Furter, , op. cit. (6), 56.

13 Schoenemann, K., ‘The separate development of chemical engineering in Germany’, in Furter, , op. cit. (6), 251.

14 Westwater, J. W., ‘The beginnings of chemical engineering education in the USA’, in Furter, , op. cit. (6), 142.

15 Furter, W. F. (ed.), A Century of Chemical Engineering, New York, 1982.

16 Trescott, M. M., ‘Unit operations in the chemical industry: an American innovation in modern chemical engineering’, in Furter, , op. cit. (15), 9.

17 Trescott, , op. cit. (16), 10.

18 Peppas, N. A., ‘The origins of chemical engineering’, in One Hundred Years of Chemical Engineering (ed. Peppas, N. A.), Dordrecht, 1989, 312.

19 Landau, R. and Rosenberg, N., ‘Successful commercialization in the chemical process industries’, in Technology and the Wealth of Nations (ed. Rosenberg, N., Landau, R. and Mowery, D. C.), Stanford, 1992, 81 and 85.

20 Donnelly, , ‘Representations’, op. cit. (2), 210.

21 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 587–8.

22 Divall, , ‘Education’, op. cit. (2), 264.

23 Freshwater, , op. cit. (1), 98.

24 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 561.

25 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 557.

26 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 561.

27 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 563 and 566. See also Shears, J. C., Machinery and Apparatus for Manufacturing Chemists, London, 1895 (available in the Science Museum Library, South Kensington), which predates Davis's textbook by six years. It gives advice on the location and construction of a chemical factory, and describes equipment suitable for various operations. Such books were presumably used by consultants and manufacturers, and could indeed be compiled from plant manufacturers' catalogues.

28 Davis, G. E., A Handbook of Chemical Engineering, 2 vols., Manchester, 1901, is available at the library of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Rugby. See also Freshwater, , op. cit. (1), 101.

29 See Imperial College Archive, A Short Notice…The Opening…Of The Central Institution, London, 25 June 1884,18. Item 3 above clearly indicates the importance of the chemical industry in the minds of the founding fathers of the Central Institution, though when the Preliminary Programme of the Central was published two months later, in August 1884, the reference to ‘chemical works’ had been dropped.

30 Bud, R. and Roberts, G. K., Science versus Practice: Chemistry in Victorian Britain, Manchester, 1984, ch. 3, and 135.

31 Armstrong had studied at the Royal College of Chemistry (later the Royal College of Science) and was awarded his Ph.D. in Leipzig in 1870, when he was twenty-two years old. Six years later, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. See Imperial College Archive, ‘Armstrong Papers Second Series’, London, 1974, 3.

32 Annual Calendars are available in the Imperial College Archive. From 1885, when the Central Institution opened, these Calendars were called the Programme of the Central Institution (hereafter Programme) and from 1907, when the Central was absorbed into Imperial College, they are called the Calendar of Imperial College (hereafter Calendar). The diploma of ‘Chemical Engineer’ is mentioned on p. 25 of the Programme dated 1885.

33 See Programme, op. cit. (32), 1888/1889, 16, and 1889/1890, 19. The numbers of full-time students attracted to Armstrong's course were always disappointing: see Eyre, J. V., Henry Edward Armstrong 1848–1937, London, 1958, 111. Soon, its main function became the teaching of chemistry to mechanical and electrical engineers. Armstrong saw it as his mission to teach the scientific method to engineers via his experimental chemistry course: see Armstrong, H. E., ‘The teaching of scientific method’, in Educational Times, London, 05 1891, 116, available in the Imperial College Archive, ‘Armstrong Papers’, op. cit. (31).

34 Programme, op. cit. (32), 1885/1886, 25–6.

35 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 558–61.

36 Donnelly, , ‘Representations’, op. cit. (2), 218, and ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 559.

37 In Servos, John W., Physical Chemistry from Ostwald to Pauling, Stanford, 1990, 266, Servos states that George E. Hale, Arthur A. Noyes and Robert A. Millikan (early leading figures at the California Institute of Technology) ‘were true believers in the notion that basic science had strong and direct links with technology’.

38 Weale, K. E., City and Guilds College: A Centenary History, London, 1985, 14.

39 Donnelly, , ‘Representations’, op. cit. (2), 216–17; Massachusetts Institute of Technology was known as Boston Tech until 1916, when the local patronage of the ‘Boston aristocracy’ gave way to the multi-million dollar support of George Eastman, the DuPont cousins and others, and the college moved across the Charles river to Cambridge. See Servos, J. W., ‘The industrial relations of science: chemistry at MIT, 1900–1939’, Isis (1980), 71, 532 and 538; and Noble, D. F., America by Design, New York, 1977, 141.

40 Imperial College was formed by uniting three constituent colleges: City and Guilds College (engineering; formerly the Central Institution), the Royal College of Science and the Royal School of Mines.

41 Calendar, op. cit. (32), 1913/1914, 66.

42 Weale, , op. cit. (38), 31–2.

43 Weale, , op. cit. (38), 33.

44 Calendar, op. cit. (32), 1911/1912, 27–8.

45 Calendar, op. cit. (32), 1919/1920, 155.

46 Freshwater, op. cit. (1), 104.

47 Calendar, op. cit. (32), 1913/1914, 32.

48 See Walker, et al. , op. cit. (8).

49 Williams, G. C. and Vivian, J. E., ‘Pioneers in chemical engineering at M.I.T.’, in Furter, , op. cit. (6), 113.

50 Weber, H. C., ‘The improbable achievement: chemical engineering at M.I.T.’, in Furter, , op. cit. (6), 77.

51 Williams, and Vivian, , op. cit. (49), 113.

52 Williams, and Vivian, , op. cit. (49), 116.

53 Servos, , op. cit. (39), 533–4.

54 Servos, , op. cit. (39), 535.

55 Servos, , op. cit. (39), 538.

56 Servos, , op. cit. (37), 256, quotes Noyes' views on the education of engineers: they are remarkably similar to those of Armstrong. See Armstrong, , op. cit. (33).

57 Bud and Roberts have described the earlier debate between those who advocated the teaching of pure science and pure scientific research as the route to greater industrial achievement, and those who believed that applied science was worthy of academic study in its own right, and that applied research would yield the advances in technology which were required to maintain Britain's industrial leadership. For exampsle, see Bud, and Roberts, , op. cit. (30), 71, 85–7, 156–7.

58 Williams, and Vivian, , op. cit. (49), 115.

59 Scriven, , op. cit. (1), 12; Noble, , op. cit. (39), 156.

60 Reynolds, T., 75 Years of Progress: A history of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers 1908–1983, New York, 1983, 12, quotes in full the definition of unit operations in Little's report.

61 Vincenti, W., What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Baltimore, 1990, 112–36.

62 Vincenti, , op. cit. (61), 132.

63 See p. 180, above.

64 See Walker, et al. , op. cit. (8). Lewis had been a chemical engineering undergraduate student of Walker's, had obtained a Ph.D. at Breslau in 1911, and returned to teach at MIT, where in 1920 he became head of the department of chemical engineering. The third author of Principles, McAdams, received his MS in chemical engineering at MIT in 1917, and returned to join the faculty after war service. See Williams, and Vivian, , op. cit. (49), 116–18.

65 Hougen, , op. cit. (1), 96–8, shows that at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, unit operations entered the curriculum around 1915 and began to be superseded after 1955.

66 Emeritus Professor of chemical engineering (Imperial College), R. W. H. Sargent used a late edition of the Principles as a textbook after the Second World War (personal communication).

67 See, for example, Noble, , op. cit. (39), 266–76.

68 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 587.

69 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 584.

70 Expressed in his 1994 paper ‘Education for design’ (Divall, , op. cit. (2), 267–8).

71 Divall, , ‘Education for design’, op. cit. (2), 270.

72 Bird, R. B., Stewart, W. E. and Lightfoot, E. N., Transport Phenomena, Madison, 1960.

73 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 557.

74 Indeed, a large majority of all the university courses in chemical engineering founded before 1940 arose in departments of chemistry. See Westwater, , op. cit. (14), 145, 147 and 150. Westwater analysed all of the chemical engineering departments in the United States: fifty-six originated in departments of chemistry, thirteen in assorted engineering departments and seventeen were founded as free-standing departments. In the case of the pioneering departments at Boston Tech and Imperial College, it was thirty-three years and twenty-six years respectively before chemical engineering became separated from chemistry and associated with the faculty of engineering.

75 Reynolds, , op. cit. (60), 69.

76 See Haber, L. F., The Chemical Industry During the 19th Century, London, 1958, 143, and op. cit. (11), 320, in which the value of the production of the United States chemical industry is said to have grown as follows: 1900, $63m; 1913, $833m; 1927, $2313m. Output in the record year of 1929 was not surpassed until 1937. See Reynolds, , op. cit. (60), 27.

77 Reynolds, , op. cit. (60), 47.

78 Reynolds, , op. cit. (60), 10.

79 Reynolds, , op. cit. (60), 13.

80 Reynolds, , op. cit. (60), 1415.

81 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 581–3.

82 Donnelly, , ‘Chemical engineering’, op. cit. (2), 583.

83 Divall, , ‘Education for design’, op. cit. (2), 267.

84 Divall, , ‘Education for design’, op. cit. (2), 269.

85 Hinchley, Edith M., John William Hinchley, Chemical Engineer, London, 1935, 69.

86 Divall, , ‘Education for design’, op. cit. (2), 265.

87 Calendar, op. cit. (32), 1919/1920, 156, and 1938/1939, 186–7.

88 Hougen, , op. cit. (1), 93.

89 Schoenemann, , op. cit. (13), 250.

90 Scriven, , op. cit. (1), 27.

91 See Hougen, , op. cit. (1), 101; and Calendar, op. cit. (32). For detailed references see Table 1, note b.

92 Guédon, , op. cit. (12), 47 and 51–3. Guédon takes a typically ‘declinist’ view of the British chemical industry, explaining that although Britain led the world in heavy inorganic chemical production in the 1850s, its industry was dominated by a conservative management who saw no need for scientific research. Later, Britain was unable to benefit from newer technologies which emerged from the Continent after 1870, owing to a lack of trained scientists in general, and of chemists in particular. The British at last realized their error (says Guédon) and began training more chemists. However, this did not solve the problems of the British chemical industry, because in the early years of the twentieth century, too many of these valuable graduates went into teaching. This interpretation was common at the time when Guedon was writing (1980), but it was based on an estimate of the number of chemists in Britain before 1914 which has since been comprehensively criticized in Edgerton, D. E. H., ‘Science and technology in British business history’, Business History (1987), 29, 103.

93 Membership of chemical societies from Haber, , op. cit. (11), 35–7. These figures are approximate. In all countries there were chemists who were members of more than one society. Population figures are from: US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States from Colonial Times to 1957, Washington, 1960; Mitchell, B. R., Abstract of British Historical Statistics, Cambridge, 1962; Bade, K. J., Population, Labour and Migration in 19th. and 20th. Century Germany, Leamington Spa, 1987. Where necessary, in both the membership and population statistics, I have made linear interpolations to obtain figures for years for which they are not given in the sources.

94 Donnelly, J., ‘Industrial recruitment of chemistry students from English universities: a revaluation of its early importance’, BJHS (1991), 24, 6.

95 Donnelly, , op. cit. (94), 1718.

96 Donnelly, , op. cit. (94), 20.

97 Haber, , op. cit. (11), 34.

98 Divall, , ‘Education for design’, op. cit. (2), 264–7.

99 Divall, , ‘Education for design’, op. cit. (2), 264–5.

100 Given rhat the population of Britain was 47 million, and that of the United States was 132 million in 1940, membership of IChemE of 761 would imply a membership of AIChE of about 2140, assuming both countries had the same number of chemical engineers per head. The actual membership of AIChE was 2255: only 5 per cent different from the 2140 calculated on the basis of population difference alone.

101 In his pamphlet Science, Technology and the British Industrial ‘Decline’, 1870–1970 (forthcoming), David Edgerton demonstrates convincingly that ‘despite constant arguments that scientists and engineers had more influence in other countries, British higher education, the British state, and British industry were, if anything, peculiarly scientific and technological’.

102 Ferrier, R. W., The History of the British Petroleum Company, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1982, i, 13.

103 Trescott, , op. cit. (16), 15.

104 Haber, , op. cit. (11), 184217.

105 The importance of German sources to early students of chemical engineering is emphasized by the inclusion of the study of German in Henry Armstrong's course at the Central (op. cit. (34)). Hougen, , op. cit. (1), 91, notes that ‘A reading knowledge of German was required’ of the first chemical engineering students at Wisconsin.

106 In this respect, the situation was similar to that found by Edgerton and Horrocks for industrial R & D, namely, that it ‘may be that British firms were more like American firms, or German firms, than historians have allowed’. See Edgerton, D. E. H. and Horrocks, S. M., ‘British industrial research and development before 1945’, Economic History Review (1994), 47, 235.

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The early history of chemical engineering: a reassessment

  • Clive Cohen (a1)


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