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Fritz Haber in 1891

HABER & BOSCH

Most influential persons of the 20th century
(according to Nature, July 29 1999)

Carl Bosch

Other scientists / inventors of the past two centuries whose impact was great but not quite as great:
1. Einstein (1915: general relativity)
2. Benz, Otto, Daimler (1876-1886: gasoline engine and car, quintessential machines of the 20th century)
3. Gauss (mathematician of the millennium)
4. Fleming (1928: Penicillin saves millions of lives)
5. Zuse (1935-41: first program- controlled computer) and Babbage (1830s: first designs of such computers); Lilienfeld (1928: transistor; also O. Heil, 1935, and Shockley et al., 1948)
6. Goedel (1931: limits of math and computation), Turing (1936: Turing machine, 1943: Nazi code breaker)
7. Mendel (1853: genetic theory), Darwin & Wallace (1858: evolution theory) and Crick, Watson, Wilkins, Franklin (1953: DNA)
8. Maxwell (1873: theory of electricity), Faraday (1800s: experiments), Siemens (1866: practical dynamo drives electricity era; 1892: electric locomotion), Edison (1877: phonograph; his employees and J.W. Swan improve light bulbs of Davy, Houdin, etc.)
9. Meucci, Reis, Bell (telephone) and Marconi (wireless communication for radio and cell phone)
10. Hahn & Meitner (1938: uranium fission, for A-bomb and nuclear power)
11. Planck (1900: quantum physics), Heisenberg (1925: uncertainty principle)
12. Freud (psychoanalysis)

Fritz Haber (left, 1.0 Nobel prizes in 1918) and Carl Bosch (right, 0.5 Nobels in 1931) have probably had a greater impact than anyone in the past 100 years, including Hitler, Gandhi, Einstein, etc.

Their Haber-Bosch process has often been called the most important invention of the 20th century (e.g., V. Smil, Nature, July 29 1999, p 415) as it "detonated the population explosion," driving the world's population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000.

The 70 million deaths of World War I and World War II almost vanish next to these numbers. But Haber, a patriotic German Jew, shared some responsibility for those as well: his work helped Germany to significantly prolong WW I, and also to develop the Zyklon B poison gas used in WW II's Holocaust. Haber's almost paradoxical biography affected more lives and deaths than anybody else's.

Bosch was a co-founder of IG-Farben, the world's largest chemical company. After WW II the allies broke it up into three smaller parts, each still larger than any foreign chemical company.


In the past 200 years only the germ theory of disease by Pasteur & Koch (1868-1876) had an impact on mankind that rivals the one of the Haber-Bosch process.
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Haber-Bosch process:
Under high temperatures and very high pressures, hydrogen and nitrogen (from thin air) are combined to produce ammonia.

Nearly one century after its invention, the process is still applied all over the world to produce 500 million tons of artificial fertilizer per year. 1% of the world's energy supply is used for it (Science 297(1654), Sep 2002); it still sustains roughly 40% of the population (M. D. Fryzuk, Nature 427, p 498, 5 Feb 2004). Billions of people would not even exist without it. And our dependence will only increase as the global count moves from six to ten billion people or so.

Compare the ongoing robot population explosion!

robot population explosion
Haber was a professor in Karlsruhe when he demonstrated the feasibility of ammonia synthesis in 1909. Bosch, an engineer at BASF in Ludwigshafen, then overcame some unprecedented engineering problems associated with the enormous pressure required by the process. Commercial production started in 1913. Within a few decades, the super- exponential effect on the world's population became obvious (right).

Was the Haber-Bosch process good or bad? Some say the world would be better off without so many people. In any case, no other invention of the past 200 years has had such an impact on our planet, neither cars nor flying machines nor computers etc...

Fibonacci web design
by J. Schmidhuber

robot population explosion