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The Phenol conspiracy

In World War I, phenol was a key ingredient in aspirin, explosives, and phonograph records. German agents secretly redirected Thomas Edison’s excess phenol supply to prevent it being used for British bombs.

Phenol Plot newspaper
New York World, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1915, the United States was not a formal part of World War I – officially, they maintained neutrality in the European conflict. But there was a lot of pro-British sentiment in the country and US banks were loaning large amounts of money to Britain and France to support their war effort. While the country’s neutrality allowed them to trade with both Britain and Germany, both sides attempted to block ships going to the other side. Britain’s blockade of Germany was enormously successful, whereas Germany had limited capacity to prevent American supplies from reaching Britain. (The German use of submarines to enforce their own own blockade was one of the triggers that led to the United States joining the war in 1917.)

Back to 1915, unable to prevent American supplies making their way to Britain, the German government explored more clandestine ways to disrupt this supply chain. Here’s where phenol comes in. This chemical, derived from coal processing, was a key ingredient in salicylic acid (used to make aspirin), picric acid (used to make explosives), and a particular type of plastic that coated Thomas Edison’s first disc-shaped phonograph records. American-made phenol became an important target for Germany.

Before the war most American phenol was imported from the United Kingdom. That stopped because Britain needed it themselves for bombs. Thomas Edison began to manufacture his own phenol for phonograph records, but his factories produced much more than he needed. It seemed very likely (to Germany, at least) that all that extra phenol would be heading towards Britain, ready to turn into munitions. And so, the Great Phenol Plot began.

Germany funnelled money to a German government official stationed in the States; he in turn sent that money on to a front company. The front company bought up all of Edison’s excess phenol and redirected it to a Bayer plant in the States. Instead of making British bombs it would be making American aspirin – and Germany was making a tidy profit on it too!

This plot became public in the most embarrassing way possible: the German official left his briefcase on a train and it was picked up by the US secret service. Inside the briefcase: details of the whole scheme. Everything that Germany had done was technically legal (because the States was still officially neutral), but the details were leaked to the press and that was enough to stop the deal completely.

Edison promised to sell all his excess phenol to the US armed forces, Bayer’s reputation took a substantial hit in the States, and two years later the US entered the war.

[Thanks to an anonymous reader for suggesting this topic.]

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The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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