What the Irish chemistry set did during the Great War

Several Irish scientists contributed to explosive research during the first World War

Frederick G Donnan: during the first World War he assisted in improving the production of chemicals needed for manufacturing explosives and mustard gas. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images

Frederick G Donnan: during the first World War he assisted in improving the production of chemicals needed for manufacturing explosives and mustard gas. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images

 

Two of the most significant engagements of the first World War took place in 1916. The Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the war, began on May 31st and finished inconclusively on June 1st. The Battle of the Somme began on July 1st and ended some four months and one million casualties later.

Both of these battles put relatively new technologies to the test. In the case of the Battle of Jutland, battleships used lighter armour and longer-range guns. The Battle of the Somme included the first appearance of the tank as well as new forms of poison gas..

The first World War was a conflict in which new technologies were actively applied, many of them with profound consequences for loss of life. Science, technology and war became enmeshed.

Far from being neutral observers, many scientists actively participated in imagining and creating technologies that they hoped would help the war effort in their home countries. Different countries took different approaches. France, for example, militarised relevant university departments, whereas Britain simply enlisted specific scientists. In most cases, privately owned companies actually produced the weapons.

Chemistry was particularly important to the war. This branch of science had been on the rise throughout the 19th century, as chemists were perceived as useful in industry and agriculture. They invented, for example, new techniques of bleaching and dyeing fabric and began to manufacture artificial fertilisers.

New techniques of chemical production and analysis proved to have other uses during the war. Once war broke out, chemists on both sides weaponised their knowledge of the chemical world. They were particularly important in the development of poisonous gases (chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas). In Germany, Fritz Haber helped to create a lethally effective form of chlorine gas that was deployed in the Battle of Ypres in 1915. Haber’s research was actually in the production of chemical fertiliser in large quantities, for which he later received the Nobel Prize. His life and career were, however, haunted by his participation in the war. Shortly after Ypres, his wife, a chemist who did not approve of his applying science to war, took her own life.

Irish involvement

Of particular importance to the British war effort was Nobel’s Explosives in Ardeer, Scotland. The factory was founded by Alfred Nobel (he who endowed the Nobel Prize), and several Irish scientists worked for the factory during the war years. Thomas Joseph Nolan, a Dublin-born chemist, spent some of the years of his training in Germany and was in Berlin when the war broke out in 1914. Soon after returning to Dublin, he began working for Nobel’s Explosives in Scotland. Perhaps his interest had been piqued by a chemistry teacher in Synge Street who had apparently set fire to hydrogen gas to cause a small explosion.

Nolan’s lifelong interest was in the pigmentation of plants, but he spent nearly 10 years working on explosives. He developed a new powdered propellant, the substance used to create sufficient force to propel a bullet or other projectile.

Nolan later went on to work at UCD, where he must have known Hugh Ryan. Ryan was originally from Tipperary and was also an organic chemist. Although Ryan was sympathetic to republican ideas, he also assisted Nobel’s Explosives during the war.

Shortly after the war, Nobel’s merged with three other companies to form Imperial Chemical Industries. Another Irish chemist, Frederick George Donnan, worked at this company for many years. Donnan was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but was of Irish extraction and studied at Belfast Royal Academy and Queen’s College Belfast. During the first World War he assisted in improving the production of chemicals needed for manufacturing explosives and mustard gas. (For more on the contribution of Irish scientists to the war, read Tomás Irish’s Trinity in War and Revolution, 1912-1923.)

Many scientists who participated in the effort to produce deadly weapons probably experienced ethical dilemmas. However, science became even more entrenched as part of national defence after the war. The piecemeal approach of using some university staff and private companies was replaced, in the US particularly, with a comprehensive system of military research that produced an array of ever more deadly weapons from the atomic bomb to napalm.

  • Dr Juliana Adelman lectures in history at St Patrick’s College Drumcondra
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