Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phenol, Edison, Bayer and Records

Phenol, also known under an older name of carbolic acid, is a toxic, colourless crystalline solid with a sweet tarry odor. Its chemical formula is C6H5OH. It's solubility in water is limited, it's slightly acidic and is normally made from the partial oxidation of benzene. It's also a byproduct of coal oxidation. So far just a random chemical right?

Phenol is used in a few common products: Aspirin, phonograph records, and TNT. When you think about it, these are just three random products in a long list of things that include Phenol as an ingredient. but at the wrong time, the three can be in strong competition if Phenol is in short supply. ...Say World War One.

Cylinders peaked in popularity about 1905. but by 1912 the record was picking up popularity. Edison wanted to compete but he didn't want to import shellac from Asia. They invented an early phenol-polymer the predecessor to Bakelite. Edison mixed phenol and formaldehyde with with wood-flour and a solvent. This new composite material made the core of the disc. This was then coated with a phenolic resin varnish called Condensite. The finished 10" disc weighed ten ounces, heavier than most, partially due to the 1/4" thickness of the record. Today records are made form PVC but until 1912 it was all shellac. (The Edison 1o-inch did require a switch from a steel needle to a diamond needle)

Bayer had the US patent on Aspirin. Aspirin was a brand name. Prior to Aspirin bayer mostly made industrial dyes. The chemical is actually named Acetyl Salicylic Acid. They used Phenol to make it. Circa WWI Aspirin was a wonder drug. It was an all-purpose analgesic, and fever-reducer that didn't cause stomach irritation like it's predecessors. And it wasnt' an addictive narcotic like Heroin and Morphine which were both available by prescription at the time. All three were used on troops in WWI. More here.

Bayer was feeling the pinch of the short Phenol supply during WWI because Britain and the U.S. State Department was buying most of the international supply whole sale to bomb Germany flat. At the same time that created a shortage of aspirin, but back home it was restricting the press runs of records. NO RECORDS! OH NO! More here.

Edison wasn't going to stand for that. In 1915 the clever devil started making about 12 tons of Phenol per day. He only needed 9 tons for his records, so he started selling the balance of 3 tons to Bayer. This was a good deal for Bayer since they just turned around and sold most of their aspirin to the military. But then it came out that some Bayer executives were involved with some spies at the German embassy! So the State department stepped in took over the board of Bayer since it was foreign owned and the war was ramping up anyway. They also took away their phenol and began allowing US firms to make aspirin without the patent license, essentially dissolving the Bayer patent.... Edison just kept making records.

Phenol was also used to execute people, an oral antiseptic, and actually was an ingredient in Bakelite™, a synthetic resin that was later used in the 1930s in the chassis of tabletop radios.

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