How the chemistry of nitrogen-based compounds, crucial to the making of both explosives and fertilizer, has altered the course of history.
Canadian writer Bown (Scurvy, 2004) explores some of history’s dustiest galleries to marshal personalities and events that, having changed the world, have been largely forgotten. This somewhat tortuous but logically connected journey begins with gunpowder, a plaything for the Chinese perhaps over a millennium ago, but seriously pursued as a weapon of mass destruction in Europe by the 13th century. Thus begins the frantic quest for saltpeter (potassium nitrate, also known as niter), an essential gunpowder component, along with sulfur and charcoal; although it naturally occurs when human or animal wastes saturate—and thus fertilize—the soil, the European powers developed such an appetite for saltpeter that large tracts in tropical colonies like India were dedicated to its cultivation and production. The author ventures through the ebb and flow of nitrate commerce as the vast, (literally) stinking “guano island” deposits off the Chilean coast become, essentially, the Saudi Arabia of a 19th century world in need of both nitrogen-based fertilizers and yet more gunpowder. Meanwhile, Alfred Nobel (1833–96) formulated nitroglycerine, first called “blasting oil,” and in 1866, following some harrowing disasters, refined it into more stable dynamite that became a prime enabler for the modern heavy construction and mining industries. On the eve of World War I, when depletion of the world’s nitrates loomed as an impending disaster (paralleling modern petroleum dependence), the German chemist Fritz Haber invented a process for fixation of nitrogen from the air, thus cheaply synthesizing nitrates and, Bown suggests, saving civilization from starvation. Since Haber also worked on deployment of chlorine gas as a weapon first used by the Germans in France, his awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1918 remains highly controversial.
Plodding early on, but Bown effectively revisits the geopolitical intrigues that accrued around a now forgotten commodity.