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   Chapter 20 CHEMISTRY IN THE WAR.

Kelly Miller's History of the World War for Human Rights By Kelly Miller Characters: 18566

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Substitutes for Cotton-Nitrates Produced from Air-Yeast a Real Substitute for Beef-Seaweed Made to Give up Potash-A Gangrene Preventative-Soda Made Out of Salt Water-America Chemically Independent.

It is when men are put to the test that they develop initiative and are inspired to great things. In the stress of circumstances there were created through and in the great war many unusual devices and much that will endure for the benefit of mankind in the future. It is probable that the advancements made in many lines would not have been attained in years but for the necessity which demanded the exertion of men's ingenuity, and in no field was this advancement greater than in that of chemistry.

Any struggle between men is, in the last analysis, a battle of wits, but it remained for those planning and scheming to defeat their fellow men or protect themselves in the world conflict to make for the first time in history the fullest use of the chemist's knowledge. Largely the successes of the war have been due to the studies and activities of the chemists, working in their laboratories far from the actual field of strife.

Not only has their knowledge been turned to the creation of tremendously destructive explosives, the like of which have never before been known in warfare, but the same brains which have been utilized to assist man in his death-dealing crusades have been called upon to thwart the efforts of the warring humans and save the lives of those compelled to face the withering fire of cannon, the flaming grenade and the asphyxiating gas bomb.

In the food crisis which confronted the nations, chemists drew from the very air and the waters of the river and sea, gases and salts to take the place of those which became limited in their supply because of the demands of the belligerents.

The chemist is one of those who fights the battles at home. The resisting steel, the penetrating shell, the poisonous gas, the power-producing oil, the powerful explosive-all these are his contributions to the war's equipment, but he also is the magician who waves the wand and out of the apparently useless weeds and vegetable matter produces edibles. He turns waste products into valuable chemicals or extracts needed chemicals from by-products.

GERMANY'S GREAT PRIVATION.

Germany, deprived of many imports by the sea power of England, first transformed herself into a self-supporting nation through the agency of the chemist. Substitutes had to be provided for food products which the Germans could not get, and it is said that the ability of the Kaiser and his henchmen to withstand the attacks of the Allied forces was due as much to the service rendered by the chemists as by the army and navy.

Not only were artificial foodstuffs manufactured, but natural food products previously neglected were prepared for use. What had been regarded as useless weeds were found to possess food value. A dozen wild-growing plants were found that might be used as a substitute for spinach, while half a dozen others were shown to be good substitutes for salads. Starches were obtained from roots, and cheap grades of oils and fatty wastes of all sorts were turned into edibles.

Up until the advent of the present war cotton formed the base of most of the so-called propellant explosives used in advanced warfare. Such terrible explosives as trinitrotoluene occasionally mentioned in the published war reports, as well as many others, have as the principal agent of destructive force guncotton, which is ordinary raw cotton or cellulose treated with nitric or sulphuric acid, though there are, of course, other chemicals used in compounding the various forms of deadly explosives.

At the same time there are innumerable explosives which are of a distinct class. Lyddite, mentioned occasionally as one of the modern death-dealing explosives, has for a base picric acid. The Lyddite shells referred to occasionally in various articles about the war are shells in which Lyddite is used as the explosive. The largest percentage of explosives used in modern gunnery are those formed of nitrated cellulose-guncotton.

TWO GREAT FACTORS.

Therefore any shortage in the supply of cotton and cellulose is a serious matter in war time, for the country which has the most plentiful supply of ammunition is the one that has the greatest relative advantage. It was, for instance, stated from Washington several times after the war started and the United States commercial and industrial forces were being mobilized, that America could make enough almost unbelievably powerful explosives to blow Germany off the face of the European map, were it possible to transport the dangerous materials. Dozens of new explosive compounds were placed before the Government for consideration and in application for patents. One of the new ones, it was said, was so powerful that little more than a pinch of it exploded beneath such an immense structure as the Woolworth Building, New York, would destroy the entire edifice.

The curtailment of the supply of cotton to Germany when the war started, because of England's blockade, and later when America entered the conflict, threatened disaster to the "Fatherland." The German chemists began working immediately to supply substitutes for cotton, to be used both in the manufacture of explosives and fabrics. They developed the processes of producing cellulose from wood pulp to take the place of cotton for making guncotton, and certain forms of wood fiber and paper were used in the textile trades. Willow bark was one of the substances utilized to a limited degree in making fabrics.

Likewise synthetic-or artificial-camphor to take the place of that secured from nature's own laboratory-the camphor tree-was also produced of necessity, for camphor is an ingredient largely used in making smokeless powder. Before the war most of the camphor was obtained from Japan.

Compounds-alloyed steel, iron and aluminum-have also been used in the industrial world to supplant copper. In America we have been educated to regard copper as the ideal metal for conducting electrical power, but in Europe aluminum was used successfully in a large way, even before the war. After the conflict started in all of the countries where there was a scant supply of copper, substitutes were developed by the metallurgists and chemists.

POTENCY OF MODERN CHEMISTRY.

The acids and salts used in powder making and the creation of explosives were also secured from new places. Nitric acid, which is necessary to the manufacture of guncotton, for many years was made principally with saltpeter and sulphuric acid. Modern chemists, however, made it from nitrogen of the very air we breathe, and in Germany it was made during the war from ammonia and calcium cyanamide, both of which may be obtained from the air.

Many such methods of obtaining acids were known and tested before the war, but the processes had not been perfected to such an extent as to make them commercially profitable. However, the increased prices of chemicals, due to the excessive demands of war, and the absolute necessity for producing them inspired the chemists to get the required results, and Germany by the development of these sources of supply found the acids necessary for her own use in war, whether for explosive making or medical purposes.

Great quantities of sugar are used in making powder and explosives, too, and when the supply became limited the German chemists began producing in larger quantities the chemical substitute-saccharine. Later even this sweet was denied the population because the chemicals were needed for war uses. So in every line Germany found use for everything which its chemists and chemical laboratories could produce.

The terrible gas and liquid fire bombs which the Germans were first reported using contained chemical compounds invented for the purpose by the chemists. Some of the chemicals and the gases produced when the bombs exploded were so powerful that men and animals in the range of the fumes were killed instantly. The effect was to paralyze them in some cases and it was reported that many of the soldiers were found dead standing upright in the trenches or in the attitudes which they had assumed at the moment they were overcome.

BASIC PRINCIPLE OF BOMBS.

Nitrous-oxide, or chlorine, in some chemical form is supposed to have been the base of the bombs, and concerning the liquid fire it was reported in connection with the dropping of bombs on London from a Zeppelin, that some of the bombs contained what is chemically known as Thermit, which is a mixture of aluminum and iron oxide used in brazing and welding. When ignited the oxygen is freed from the iron and combines with the aluminum with great rapidity. During the chemical reaction an intense heat is produced-a heat so great that it almost equals that of an electric arc.

So in the world of agriculture and industry the German chemists, recognized leaders of the world, actually made or produced from the air and other unsuspected sources things without which they could not have withstood the siege against them for a single year. In the absence of concentrated foods for cattle and humans, the chemists produced absolute substit

utes. They took the residue or waste from the breweries and extracting the bitter hops taste from the dried yeast produced a substitute for beef extract.

So also they secured ammonium sulphate by a direct combination of nitrogen and hydrogen in the air. At the same time they utilized other minerals than those usually available for the manufacture of sulphuric acid and placed the country on an independent footing.

But Germany was not alone in its advancement. The United States, which found itself without quantities of dye-stuffs and many other chemically produced things when the war came on, took the lesson unto itself and is today nearer self-supporting than it ever was in the history of the nation. The Department of Agriculture has experimented and produced from yeast, vegetable boullion cubes, which taste like beef extract and contain greater nutriment.

DOMESTIC DYE-STUFFS.

America, too, has extracted sulphate of ammonium from the air and the dye-stuffs which we could not get from abroad are being made at home. Two of the things which America found lacking when war developed were potash and acetone, both of which are factors in powder and explosive making. The former is used in the ordinary black gunpowder, but the latter is necessary in the making of the smokeless powder. England wanted Cordite, one form of this powder which the British think is the best propellant in the world. It is made of guncotton and nitroglycerine and acetone is one of the chemicals required in its manufacture. England turned to the United States for quantities of this explosive and also for the acetone, but America did not produce anywhere near enough, and England wanted this country to make something like 20,000,000 pounds of the explosive.

A number of mushroom chemical plants were developed by the powder company to produce the desired acetone-one very much like a vinegar plant near Baltimore, and another at San Diego, California, where the munitions maker's chemists refined acetone and potash extracted from kelp, or sea weed, and besides supplying the powder and the chemicals which the English needed America developed a permanent industry.

RELIEVED BY AMERICAN INGENUITY.

Carbolic acid, too, was one of the badly needed chemicals of the war, not only for medical purposes, but also for explosive making. Again the ingenuity of America asserted itself and Thomas A. Edison produced the plans for two benzol-absorbing plants which were erected at great steel works and within a few months these plants were turning out benzol and Mr. Edison's carbolic-acid plant was being supplied with the raw material.

And then it was believed that America could not make dyes to take the place of those which came from Germany. All the United States, it was said, would have to wear white stockings. The country just could not produce the dyes necessary, and the product of the American plants was inferior. But America could make the same dyes. She is making them. Right now she is making practically as great a variety as Germany ever sent over here.

A few miles outside of Philadelphia, at Marcus Hook, on the busy Delaware river where the ships of the world are being made, the Benzol Products Company turns out large quantities of aniline oil. The aniline oil, the essential basis of aniline dyes, is made into tints as fair and perfect as any the wizards of Germany ever conjured out of their test tubes.

The tale about America's inability was proved to be a fable. The Marcus Hook plant is one of three which sprang up when the war began. Others are the Schoellkopf Aniline and Chemical Works at Buffalo and a third is the Becker Aniline and Chemical Works at Brooklyn. The three are now merged into one great operating company and Germany will have some difficulty in getting back her dye trade when she is ready to again fight for the world markets.

Moreover, the world-famous duPont Company, which has made powder and chemicals for all the nations, turned in and purchased the Harrison Chemical Works in 1917, and besides making "pigments" has entered the coal tar dye industry. The company made an intensive study of the dyeing industries-cotton, calico printing, wool, silk, leather, paper, paints, printing inks, &c., and made plans to meet the requirements of each. The Harrison plant is but one of the immense group operated by the duPont Company and it has been famous for the manufacture of white lead and acids.

A CHEMICAL DISCOVERY.

There is in fact no line in which the chemists of America did not rise to the emergency and the "romances of the industrial" world are not more entrancing than are those of the medical and other fields. Chemistry, for instance, discovered an antitoxin for the deadly gangrene, or gas bacillus, poisoning of the battlefields. The discovery was made by research workers in Rockefeller Institute.

It is one of the most important discoveries in medical research as applied to war, having an even greater bearing on the treatment of war wounds than the Dakin-Carrel treatment of sluicing wounds previously referred to. The serum works on the same principle as the anti-tetanus serum used to prevent lockjaw. The gangrene antitoxin is injected to prevent the development of gangrene poisoning.

The serum was developed by Dr. Carrel Bull and Miss Ida W. Pritchett, of the Rockefeller Institute, by immunizing horses by the application of the bacillus germs, then obtaining the resultant serum from the horses. The new serum displaces, in a measure, the Dakin-Carrel method of treating wounds. As soon as a soldier is picked up wounded, the plan is to give him an injection of the serum so that he can be rushed to the rear ambulances with no fear that the deadly gas infection will develop.

The use of the serum means the wiping out of the big death rate from infection, with death resulting merely from wounds that are in themselves fatal. The gas bacillus was discovered by Dr. William H. Welch, of Johns Hopkins University, 25 years ago. The bacillus frequently is present in soil and when carried to an open wound germinates quickly, developing into bubbles of gaseous matter, whence comes the name "gas bacillus." The bubbles multiply rapidly, a few hours often being sufficient to cause death.

A WOUND-FLUSHING SYSTEM.

Possible gangrene poisoning has been offset by the Dakin-Carrel system of constantly flushing the open wounds, but patients are frequently too far off to be given the advantage of the flushing method and this is where the serum is chiefly valuable. The ambulance or medical corps "shoots" the serum into the wounded soldier even before they douse his wound with iodine.

The progress that has been made along these lines is indicated by the statement of Lord Northcliffe, who after a visit to the front declared that the annual death rate in the English army was 3 per cent of 1000 and that the average illness, including colds and influenza, was less than in London, despite the discomforts of the trenches.

In the past disease has been as destructive as battles. Biology and pathology, to say nothing of surgery and therapeutics, have made such strides that disease has been virtually eliminated as a factor in warfare. War takes medical science into the field, where the control of large masses of men enables it to develop the highest efficiency.

Even in normal peace conditions biological and pathological science has been accomplishing results not popularly understood. Individual cures by surgery and medicine appeal to personal interests, but these are negligible compared to the prevention of plagues like smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis. If such diseases had not been successfully combated by science three out of four of the present civilized population would not be in existence at all. The organized and intensive application and developments of science, of preventive medicine, constitute the strictly neutral work in this war by which all humanity will profit for all time to come.

In passing it is interesting to note that the great power supplied by Niagara Falls is being utilized to produce some of the chemical marvels. One great industry there is making soda by the electrolytic process. That is, salt brine is pumped from the saline deposits in western New York and piped to the works. This is run into electric cells and through these a current of electricity is led. The salt, which is composed of chlorine and sodium, decomposes under the electric attack. The sodium goes to one pole and combines with water to form caustic soda, whereas the chlorine escapes at the other pole. Let us follow the chlorine, which is a yellowish-green gas, more than twice as heavy as air, and has found a new use as poison gas in the great war-for which all the world should be ashamed.

It is collected and compressed to a liquid form and shipped in containers under pressure for use in chemical works and bleacheries and for the purification of drinking water. It has been found above all things effective in destroying noxious bacilli. A surprisingly small amount of the gas dissolved in the water is enough. In New York city the water has been chlorinated and no single case of typhoid fever has been traced to the supply.

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