The companies’ success began with the appropriation of Perkin’s big idea, but it did not end there. An even more important decision was to follow the instinct of his mentor, Hofmann, by pulling apart coal tar and finding uses for all of its constituent parts, not just aniline. After the aniline dyes, derived from benzene, came magentas made from toluene, reds from anthracene, pinks from phenol, and indigos from naphthalene. These were all hydrocarbons, the abundant and inexpensive building blocks of organic chemistry. Hydrocarbons proved extremely useful to the new world of chemical fabrication for the same reason that hydrogen and carbon are vital to the chemistry of life. When atoms of hydrogen and carbon form molecules, they tend to arrange themselves into durable structures of rings and long chains in which the atoms bond strongly via shared electrons. About four billion years ago, the strength of those hydrogen-carbon bonds allowed increasingly complex molecules—amino acids, DNA, and proteins—to form from the primordial soup, making life possible. Now, upon the stable platform of the hydrocarbon polymers in coal tar, chemists began to build a galaxy of new materials that were stronger, more attractive, and cheaper than what nature provided.
Dyes came first, soon followed by paints, solvents, aspirin, sweeteners, laxatives, detergents, inks, anesthetics, cosmetics, adhesives, photographic materials, roofing, resins, and the first primitive plastics—all synthetic and all derived from coal tar, the fountainhead of commercial chemistry. (Coal tar shampoos and soaps came too—and are still available in very diluted form as approved treatments for psoriasis and head lice.) Germany’s Ruhr Valley, with its vast deposits of bituminous coal, became the industrial heartland of Europe and thus the world. The British satirical magazine Punch, which back in 1859 had lampooned “mauve measles” as a fashion epidemic that should be treated with a “dose of ridicule,” by 1888 was singing the praises of aniline chemistry, with only a tinge of sarcasm:
Beautiful Tar, the outcome bright
Of the black coal and the yellow gas-light,
Of modern products most wondrous far,
Tar of the gas-works, beautiful Tar! . . .
Oil, and ointment, and wax, and wine,
And the lovely colours called aniline;
You can make anything from a salve to a star,
If you only know how to, from black Coal-tar.
When the chemical manufacturers finally did expand beyond coal tar chemistry at the end of the nineteenth century, they did so by adapting their manufacturing protocols to petroleum and other raw materials, thereby producing an even larger array of tremendously successful products, from acetone to X-ray plates. Ciba even acquired its own shale oil deposits in the Alps as a new feedstock. By the time the three huge Basel-based chemical makers (Ciba, Geigy, and Sandoz) had formed an alliance to make dyes and other products in the United States—first in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1920 and then in Toms River in 1952—the industry had proved itself capable of synthesizing almost any natural material.
It was a phenomenally profitable business—as long as no one paid too much attention to what the manufacturing process left behind.
Excerpted from Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin. Copyright © March 19, 2013, Bantam Books.