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Alkali Industry in European Industrial Revolution Essay

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2020


While researching about the chemical industry in the industrial revolution era in Europe, I discovered a few documents written by authors about the alkali industry. The authors’ literature noted several historical events that occurred in chemical industry in academic sources. However, I could hardly find other sources relating to the drivers, barriers and the impact of alkali industry upon modern day science. My aim in this paper is to focus literature by connecting barriers, drivers and impact of alkali industry development upon science.

To achieve this goal I have organized my paper into four parts; the first part focuses on historical context of alkali industry, the second part I discuss the barriers of the industry and third section focuses on drivers for development of the industry. Finally, the fourth section concludes the topic.

Historical Context

Aftalion (2001) argues that the chemical industry was born in the middle of the 18th century out of the demands created by other industries. During the industrial revolution in Europe, there was an inherent need for acids and alkalis which were a compatible combination of chemicals needed to spur industrial production. (Homburg, Travis and Schroter (2002) note that Britain had few men with chemical education of some kind employed in the alkali industry during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. However, application of chemical knowledge was rarely involved since in its early inception, and it operated informally as a traditional industry.

Barriers for Development

Health and Diet

The industrial processes were often ‘dirty and dangerous, and those working them were often subject to physiological damage’ (Homburg, Travis & Schroter 1998, p.212). Russell (2000) further argues that respiratory diseases usually affected men in middle and old age and the health of workers remained a complex question.

Gas emissions

Atmospheric pollution in ‘Britain was probably at its worst towards the end of the nineteenth century’ (Clap 2014, p.14). The impact of ‘less visible atmospheric pollutants from alkaline industries was becoming conspicuous to some contemporaries’ (Agnoletti &Serneri 2014, p.157). Agnoletti and Serneri (2014) further point out that the British government had enjoyed some early successes in regulating hydrochloric gas emissions from the alkali industry, based mainly in Merseyside, Tyneside and Glasgow.

Elworthy and Holder (1997) argue that governments in Europe wanted every owner of alkali works to use the best practicable means to prevent the escape of all noxious gases or offensive gases from the works. This was an impediment for alkali works operated informally without government interference.

Acid rain

In the 19th century European countries experienced acid rain caused by alkali industries (Agnoletti & Serneri 2014). Jacobson (2012, p. 226) asserts that ‘water characterized by a power of hydrogen less than that of natural rainwater is acid rain.’ Environmental damage due to the development of alkali industry was severe. Agnoletti and Serneri (2014) report that landowners who lived in close proximity to alkali works complained about environmental damage caused by the plants were severe with acid rain deposition destroying both agricultural crops and woodlands.

Water Pollution

The production from alkali industries were accompanied by poisoning of water sources close to the plants. Mahajan (1985) holds the opinion that alkalis, acids, inorganic salts and other chemicals formed during processing in plants lead to inorganic pollution. Alkalis caused ‘corrosion of metals and were toxic to aquatic life and other organisms responsible for self-purification of streams into which the liquid effluents were deposited’ (Mahajan, 1985, p. 4).


By the mid-19th century, laws enacted to prevent pollution were created in many European countries. Elworthy, Sue and Holder (1997) suggest that the hallmark of environmental legislation in this period was problem specific, thus air, water and land pollution were examined as distinct subjects. Jacobson (2012, p. 257) notes that ‘in France, planning laws controlled and regulated the location of alkali industries while in Britain the 1863 Alkali Act proposed a reduction of gas emissions.’

High Alkali Dust

During 19th century, many plants found out that a portion of their dust contained large amounts of alkali dust. Sell (1992, p.237) states that ‘alkaline dust condensed forming extremely fine particles that were difficult to collect hence polluted the air without easy detection.’ This was one of the most serious problems caused by alkali industries during the 19th century.

Drivers for Development

Clapp (2013) in his research writes that the principal product of the alkali manufacturing industry in the industrial revolution was sodium or sodium carbonate. Soda was ‘valuable in glass making and as a cleaning agent in its own right; and caustic soda, a derivative was an ingredient of soap’ (Clapp, 2013, p.24).The industrial revolution and modernization created the need for products from alkali industries.

Education and Business

Aftalion (2001) argues that there were talents of exceptional men who, in France, consisted of scientists, professors, and industry leaders, while in England they were self-made entrepreneurs eager to develop their business by exporting their products overseas.

Pulp and Paper making

Nilsson (2007) argues that in the 1800s, there was a shift away from using cotton rags to make industrial paper hence industrialization helped wood become the most important source of fiber. The switch from a ‘scarce fiber supply to a plentiful one opened up a vast, renewable, low cost source of fiber raw material, making large scale paper production possible’ (Nilsson 2007, p. 211)

Glass making

There was a rising demand for glass to be used in construction of buildings and alkaline industries produced high tensile glass which revolutionized building of structures in the 19th century. Aftalion (2001) argues that demand was particularly strong in France, which already had a fairly established glass industry. Sodium carbonate was a principle ingredient in the process of making glass.

Soap making

After the fall of Rome in the Middle Ages, ‘poor sanitary habits lead to people suffering from a number of hygiene-related diseases and illnesses’ (Baki and Alexander 2015, p. 151). Russell (2000) argues that French chemist; Nicholas Leblanc patented a process for making soda ash from common salt making a huge step in the commercial manufacturing of soap. Aftalion (2001) notes that in Southern France, Leblanc soda plants were supplying Marseille’s soap making with an estimated 40,000 tons of carbonate at the height of industrial production alkalis. A change in lifestyle drove industries to manufacture different kinds of soaps for commercial and household use.


In the textile industry, sodium carbonate was used as a dye for clothing.

The new dyes enabled people to ‘color their yarns and cloths with inexpensive materials compared to the natural substances, and were simple to apply’ (Quatert 1993, p.30). Quataert (1993) further argues that dyes from alkali industries offered a way to circumvent professional dyers, reduce labor costs and rapidly expand production.

Textile Bleaching

By the beginning of the 19th century, improvements in the alkali industry led to spectacular consequences. Aftalion (2001) argues that improvements in the bleaching process of cotton was reduced to a few hours, less capital was needed to build up stocks of raw cloth, and thus cloth production was boosted along with the development of the textile industry.

Impact of Alkali Industry upon Science

Industrial Research and Development

Governments have developed institutions to focus primarily on research and development of chemicals. Bridgestock (1999, p. 30) argues that ‘the most marked change is doing pure research to produce basic knowledge and industry to take knowledge and turn it into products and processes.’ The changes on the chemical industry can be traced from the beginning of the alkali industry.


Russell (2000) reports that the idea of progress based on scientific advances has been widely accepted and general benefits of science, including industrial chemistry has remained unquestioned. Chemical Industries produce new products that act as a link between science and technology and the quality of life. However, against the social benefits brought by chemical industry must be placed the ‘fact of environmental pollution and the dangers resulting from potential and actual chemical accidents’ (Russell 2000, p.320).

Chlorine- Alkali Industry

Nilsson (2007) notes that electrolytic production of chlorine from sodium chloride was introduced on an industrial scale in the year 1890.Chemical industries in the chlorine alkali sector produce plastics on a high demand and indicate a country’s level of industrialization.

Ozone Depletion and Global Warming

Oxygen and ozone help shield the earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation (Jacobson 2012).As noted by Russell (2000) the most striking development of the 21st century has been the increase of concern about the global ecological effects of chemical use.


From the industrial revolution era, the alkali industry influence had a strong impact in science and technology and made major contributions towards development of economies of countries. The alkali industry brought profound changes in our environments both at work and home. However, both black and white heritage of the alkali industry generate calls for close scrutiny of the industry.


Aftalion, F 2001, A History of the International Chemical Industry, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia.

Agnoletti, M & Serneri, S N 2014, The Basic Environmental History, Springer, New York.

Baki, G & Alexander , K S 2015, Introduction to Cosmetic Formulation and Technology, John Wiley & Sons.

Bridgstock, M 1998, Science, Technology and Society: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Clapp, B W 2014, An Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, New York.

Elworthy, S & Holder J 1997, Environmental Protection: Text and Materials. Cambridge University Press, London.

Jacobson, M Z 2012, Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mahajan, S P 1985, Pollution Control in Process Industries, Tata McGraw-Hill Education, New Delhi.

Nilsson, L 2007, Cleaner Production: Technologies and Tools for Resource Efficient Production, Baltic University Press, Uppsala.

Quataert, D 2002, Ottoman Manufacturing in the Age of the Industrial Revolution. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Russell, C A 2000, Chemistry, Society and Environment: A New History of the British Chemical Industry, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge.

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