Science is no Rock of Gibraltar but a twisting river. All too often, scientific “truths” are relegated to the wastebasket of forgotten myths. As a corollary of this, the development of science is often fraught with controversy. It is sometimes difficult to determine who created certain inventions and whether particular inventions are a blessing or a curse.
The Man who Invented Zyklon A
Fritz Haber (1868-1934), an assimilated German Jew, was responsible for inventing a process that is vital for producing half the food of the modern world. Nonetheless, people have claimed that granting him the 1918 Nobel Prize was an ethical disaster, and they’re probably right.
Modern agriculture depends on fertilizer to replace the soil nutrients depleted by last year’s crops. In olden times, people replenished the soil by leaving fields fallow, rotating crops, and using manure or other natural fertilizers. Starting in the nineteenth century, people began searching for the perfect artificial fertilizer. One of the greatest challenges was synthetically producing nitrogen, one of the essential building blocks and foods of plants.
In 1909, Fritz Haber solved the problem in principle. A year later, Carl Bosch, a fellow German, commercialized the Haber-Bosch Process that converts the nitrogen of the air into ammonia and nitric acid, two essential ingredients of artificial fertilizer. By the way, they are also essential ingredients in the production of explosives, which is why terrorists sometimes buy large quantities of fertilizer to manufacture homemade bombs. On a positive note, the Haber-Bosch Process enables the production of half the world’s supply of food. For his important achievement, Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize.
However, the development of fertilizer (and conventional explosives) was not Haber’s sole gift to Mankind. Granting him the Nobel Prize provoked great controversy due to Haber’s key role during World War I in developing chlorine gas and other poison gasses to facilitate Germany’s wholesale slaughter of enemies. Haber went beyond theory, traveling to the front lines in order to supervise the release of poison gasses onto enemy troops, despite Germany’s signing the Hague Convention of 1907 that outlawed the use of such gas.
As an excuse for this sort of behavior, Haber once said, “During peace time a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country.”
To add fuel to the flames of discontent, three other Nobel laureates — James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn — served in Haber’s unit and helped him gas enemies with his apparatus.
Incidentally, another disastrous invention developed at Haber’s institute was the poison gas Zyklon A, originally meant to eradicate food-consuming bugs. The Nazis developed this gas into the infamous Zyklon B used to kill Jews in gas chambers during World War II.
Because Haber was the founder of industries and his work was essential for the economic and military expansion of Germany, the Nazis were willing to turn a blind eye to his Jewish origins. Even after they began expelling Jewish scientists from universities and laboratories, the Nazis were willing to allow Haber to stay on in the hope that he might make some more lethal discoveries they could use to further their nefarious plans. To his credit, Haber turned down their offer. He left Germany in 1933 and arrived in London stripped of position, fortune, and honor, his World War I patriotism ignored and forgotten. He died on his way to Eretz Yisroel where Chaim Weizmann had offered him the position of director of a newly constructed research institute in Rechovot.
Who invented Aspirin?
The ancient Greeks knew that chewing willow bark was an effective way to fight fevers, even though they had no idea why it should have such an effect. If you went to Hippocrates with a headache or fever, he would have sent you out with a handful of willow bark and leaves to chew. Thousands of years later, scientists discovered that the leaves and bark of willow trees contain salicin, a compound similar to the modern aspirin we pop in our mouths to ward off headaches and inflammations or to help our hearts. People currently consume about eighty billion aspirin a year.
Modern aspirin was invented by a number of researchers who were searching for a magic bullet to salve man’s pain. According to the Bayer medicine company, the invention of aspirin was a three-stage process:
“1832: A German chemist experiments with salicin and creates salicylic acid (SA).
“1897: Chemist, Felix Hoffmann, at Bayer in Germany, chemically synthesizes a stable form of ASA powder that relieves his father’s rheumatism. The compound later becomes the active ingredient in aspirin named – “a” from acetyl, “spir” from the spirea plant (which yields salicin) and “in,” a common suffix for medications.
“1899: Bayer distributes aspirin powder to physicians to give to their patients. Aspirin is soon the number one drug worldwide.”
However, in1949, aGerman Jewish chemist, Arthur Eichengrun (1867-1949), who had survived incarceration in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War II, challenged Bayer’s history of the drug, publishing a paper that claimed Bayer’s official history was an injustice and a lie. He, and not Hoffman, had planned and directed the synthesis of aspirin. Hoffman had played a subsidiary role.
No one paid much attention to Eichengrun’s grumbling until 1999 when Walter Sneader of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, decided that Eichengrun was right after all and wrote a long paper proving his allegation. Unfortunately, Sneader did little to change the minds of Bayer or most scientists. If Eichengrun’s claim that he invented aspirin is true, he deserves to be remembered as one of the most unappreciated benefactors of Mankind in the historical record.
Who invented the Telegraph?
In a 1977 edition of Commentary Magazine, musician and author Nicolas Slonimsky, grandson of the Russian maskil Chaim Zelig Slonimsky (1810-1904), discussed the part his grandfather had in the invention of the telegraph.
In an article entitled My Grandfather Invented the Telegraph, Nicolas Slonimsky relates how his mother always recalled his grandfather telling his wife, after developing all the principles of the telegraph on paper, “Sarah, I have just invented the telegraph. Now let us see how long it will take them to figure it out.”
Years later, when news arrived of the successful demonstration of the electric telegraph in the United States, Slonimsky ordered his wife, “Please fetch that old paper from the top shelf for me.” Then, after comparing the latest invention with his diagram he declared, “Good for them!” and promptly tore up his manuscript and threw it into the trash.
This alleged, but undocumented, incident would have occurred in 1844 when Samuel Morse officially opened his first completed telegraph line by sending over it part of the posuk in Bamidbar (23:23), “What hath G-d wrought.”
One day Nicolas discovered that his mother’s allegation was at least partially true. Walking down a road in Boston in 1952, Nicolas picked up a paper that mentioned the legend of his grandfather inventing the telegraph and, investigating further, he found that a Russian army paper published that year, The Red Star, credited his grandfather with inventing not the telegraph itself, but with developing a telegraph that sent multiple messages down the same electric wire simultaneously. The article said as follows:
“During our work in the Central State Historical Archives in Leningrad, we discovered a letter written by Z.Y. Slonimsky, dated April 15, 1858, addressed to the Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Transportation… In this letter he… for the first time proposed a method to obviate certain difficulties of the simultaneous transmission of messages over the wire. Despite the novelty of Slonimsky’s proposal and the feasibility of its practical application, he failed to obtain the necessary funds for his experiments…
“Comparing Slonimsky’s device with those developed by the American scientists Stirnes in 1871 and Edison in 1874, it appears that neither of the two Americans introduced any innovations… Thus, the examination of historical evidence leads to the conclusion that our fatherland holds the priority on the duplex system of electric telegraphy made public by the Russian scientist Z.Y. Slonimsky twelve years before Stirnes and fifteen years before Edison.”
However, despite the Soviets’ belated interest in Slonimsky’s achievement, history books still ignore his contribution to the history of telegraphy and deprive him of the posthumous glory he so richly deserves.
Nicolas mentions that his great-grandfather, the inventor Avraham Yaakov Stern, invented the first Russian adding machine in 1811 and was once invited to the court of Czar Alexander I for a demonstration of his gadget. A courtier suggested a speed contest between the Czar and the machine and, unaware that protocol demanded that the Czar win the race, Stern announced the answer with a few clicks of his machine while the Czar had barely begun. The Czar’s response to his victory was, “The machine is good, but the Jew is bad.”
Perhaps this kind of attitude has sometimes contributed to Jews failing to achieve the acclaim they often deserve.