The Cultural History of the Concept of Catalysis

Cooperation Partners: 

Prof. Friedrich Kittler, Seminar für Ästhetik, Humboldt-University Berlin, Prof. Bernhard Dotzler, Institut für Medien-, Informations- und Kulturwissenschaft (IMIK), University of Regensburg, Forschungsinstitut für Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte des Deutschen Museums München, IK Sciences in the Historic Context, University of Vienna

Around 1900 the work of catalysts put the chemical industry on new ground. The production of key industrial substances such as sulfuric acid, indigo, and later ammonia by Haber-Bosch and nitric acid by Ostwald made use of those strange substances that can accelerate chemical reactions and influence their direction without being consumed by the overall reaction.

The chemical industry, with all its influence on warfare, mobility and nutrition in the twentieth century, was only one field in which the concept of catalysis became crucial. Biological and physiological research also began to use the concept to understand the activity of fermentation. Enzymes, hormones, vitamins, and even genes, were regarded as biocatalysts until the 1930s.

The concept of catalysis thus linked the spheres of big industry and the work of the living organism in a very concrete way. Furthermore, the chemical concept of catalysis had already been in use since about 1900 and still is used today as a metaphor to describe how a third party can mediate between inert actors such as in politics or scientific communities. Research on the history of the rhetoric of the catalyst thus reveals a panorama of hopes and fears about scientific and cultural progress in the twentieth century.

Important chemical characters such as the Nobel Prize laureate from 1909, Wilhelm Ostwald, or his alumnus Alwin Mittasch, head of the ammonia laboratory of the BASF, also tried to explore the capacity of the concept in a historic and cultural sense. For Mittasch in the 1930s, catalysis had to be understood as a chemical case of the even more general concept of triggering, described by Julius Robert Mayer in 1876 (“Ueber Ausloesung”), which had a strong influence on Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of nature and history. Especially in the 1930s, when the National Socialist regime forced autarky programs, e.g., for the creation of fuels with the help of catalytic technology, and fostered holistic rhetoric about the integration of nature and technology, authors of books between chemistry and propaganda like Walter Greiling, Karl Schenzinger, or Anton Zischka adopted the concepts of triggering and the catalyst to write popular history (of science).

The project on a cultural history of catalysis tried to link these different perspectives of the concept between the late nineteenth century, when catalysis became important on an industrial scale, and the middle of the twentieth century, when other models to understand biological and physiological processes became more interesting. It was thus possible to judge the concrete importance of catalysis for the wide history of raw materials and synthetics (from fertilizers to fuels to explosives). At the same time, it was also possible to understand the importance of the chemical concept of catalysis within the history of abstract concepts like “process,” “progress,” “regulation,” “organism,” and “media,” as well as its significance within the general discussion of the relationship between the biotic and the abiotic, between nature and culture in the twentieth century.