Inventors, Part 2: Feeding (and Blowing Up) the World

Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Welcome to day two of my three-day retrospective on the most important inventors of the twentieth century. If you haven't already, check out yesterday's post, where I expounded on one of the most important inventors of the twentieth century: Norman Borlaug. But Borlaug's Green Revolution would have been impossible were it not for a German inventor with a checkered legacy.

In the early parts of the twentieth century, you could argue that Chile was the most important place in the world. Chilean Saltpeter was one of the raw materials used in the creation of gunpowder and other explosives, and perhaps more importantly, as a fertilizer, it was essential for most developed nations' agriculture.

By the time the early 1900s rolled around, a war had already been fought over Saltpeter (also known as Sodium nitrate). So, during the early parts of World War I, the seas around Chile were hotly contested territory. Eventually, a British blockade of the country was successful, cutting off Germany's supply of Saltpeter.

Enter Fritz Haber, a German chemist. He was instrumental in developing the process by which atmospheric nitrogen could be fixed, creating Ammonia, which could be used both in the creation of artificial fertilizers and explosives.

The Haber Process was eventually reverse-engineered by other countries after World War I, and it is now responsible for supporting one-third of the human population on Earth. Without the fertilizer produced by the Haber Process, agricultural yields would make the current human population wholly unsustainable: some have argued that the Haber process averted a worldwide Malthusian catastrophe. He was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for the process.

The Haber Process is still in use around the world. in fact, the industrial production of Ammonia consumes a significant portion of the global energy supply each year, at least 1% to 2% of all human-generated energy.

Haber's legacy, however, is dark: while the Haber Process has reshaped the face of human population, it also greatly prolonged World War I, by allowing Germany to produce explosives, and feed a much larger army. Haber was also a passionate proponent of chemical warfare, arguing strenuously for the use of poisonous gas in trench warfare in World War I, personally developing and overseeing the development and use of Chlorine and other poisonous gasses against soldiers.

Though he was decorated by Germany for his work during World War I, as a Jew, he was forced to flee Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution. Tragically, scientists at the chemical warfare laboratories he oversaw in the 1920s developed the formulation of Cyanide gas that would later be used in the Nazi extermination camps.

Check back tomorrow for Day 3 of my inventors retrospective: why not keeping some dishes clean might have saved the world..


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