Today, we create the first research laboratory. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Long ago I wrote a master's
thesis on the properties of a chemical called
aniline. It was an exciting time for me. I'd never
heard of aniline, but I learned that it was a
standard dye base, and that it might make a good
rocket fuel. I also had to learn how to find data
in a German periodical called Liebig's Annals
of Chemistry. Twenty years later I found out
the remarkable way Liebig's life was interwoven
with the aniline I was studying.
Baron Justus von Liebig was born in Darmstadt in
1803. He took up chemistry when he was seventeen.
When he was twenty, he went to Paris for a year to
study with the famous French chemist Gay-Lussac. Gay-Lussac opened
his eyes to the new idea that accurate experiments
were needed to make sense of chemistry.
Liebig came back to a post at the University of
Giessen in Germany. There he turned his young man's
enthusiasm on the idea of precise experiments. He
worked single-mindedly to set up a chemical
research laboratory. He had to spend his own salary
on equipment. But by 1827 Liebig had a 20-man
operation, the likes of which the world hadn't seen
Liebig is honored for his work in organic,
pharmacological, and agricultural chemistry. But
this laboratory was his greatest contribution.
Other chemists had to copy it to keep up with him.
It was the first systematic research laboratory,
and it changed our thinking. Before Liebig,
research was an amateur's game. Now it was being
put into the hands of a new breed of professionals.
But there's more to the story. In 1843, one of
Liebig's former students sent him an oil he'd
isolated from coal tar. Liebig's lab found a
compound in it that reacted with nitric acid to
make brilliant blue, yellow, and scarlet coloring
agents. It was a compound Liebig had already
anticipated -- a form of benzene with one hydrogen
atom replaced by an amino group. They called it
By 1860 Germany had created a new dye industry
based on aniline. That dye industry, in turn,
carried Germany into world leadership in industrial
chemistry. This leadership owed a lot to Liebig's
ideas about chemistry. But it owed even more to his
vision of systematic research, invention, and
development. While the Germans were setting up
their dye industry, Edison and others were setting
up their own version of Liebig's laboratory here in
the United States. You and I know full well what a
profound impact R & D labs have had on American
And it was all born of youthful energy. Our very
concept of systematic research was born when a
teacher -- the great chemist Gay-Lussac -- struck a
chord in his 20-year-old student, Justus Liebig.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds