The Struggle for Survival

While chemical engineers gained a formal education in 1888, this was certainly no guarantee of success. Many prominent people saw no need for this new profession. Additionally, it was unclear what role chemical engineers would play in industry.

To survive, chemical engineers had to claim industrial territory by defining themselves and demonstrating their uniqueness and worth. With this goal in mind, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was formed in June of 1908. However, AIChE also faced difficult challenges in defining its own territory. The old (since 1876) and powerful (5000 members) American Chemical Society (ACS) had already laid claim to all realms of American Chemistry, both pure and applied.

Just weeks after the formation of AIChE, the ACS would launch its own "Division of Industrial Chemistry & Chemical Engineering" placing itself in direct competition with AIChE for the hearts and minds of the new engineers. The establishment of chemical engineering in America would involve a fierce struggle for survival.

"Enough already...go to the bottom."

Questions to Ponder

Why did chemical engineering not develop in Germany?

What challenges did the newly formed chemical engineering profession face?

Why was the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) formed?

How did AIChE deal with the possible conflict with the ACS?

How has AIChE helped gain a high status for the chemical engineering profession?

The Story: Establishing the American Chemical Engineer

German Chemical Engineers? "Just say 'Nein'!

With the rapid growth of the American chemical industry around the turn of the century, the gap between laboratory processes and full-scale industrial production needed to be bridged. To many prominent chemists, educated at popular German universities, the approach to accomplish this had already been tried and proven. Germany had experienced its own rapid period of growth (on their way to becoming the world's greatest chemical power) during the 19th Century. The German solution to industrial scale up involved teaming research chemists and mechanical engineers to take a reaction from the lab bench to the factory floor. They believed this allowed the research chemist to remain creative by not being tied down with the drudgery of engineering practice (whether or not this belief is justified is a whole other topic). Because of their scale up method the chemical engineer was entirely unneeded, being instead replaced by a chemist and a mechanical engineer.

However, the American chemical industry was fundamentally different from German's counterpart. Instead of specializing in fine chemicals or complicated dyestuffs (often made in batch reactors, something all chemists are familiar with), the American industries produced only a few simple but widely used chemicals such as sulfuric acid and alkali (both made in continuous reactors, something chemists have little experience with). These bulk chemicals were produced using straightforward chemistry, but required complex engineering set on vast scales. American chemical reactors were no longer just big pots, instead they involved complex plumbing systems where chemistry and engineering were inseparably tied together. Because of this, the chemical and engineering aspects of production could not be easily divided; as they were in Germany. The chemical engineer therefore found a role to play in America despite their absence in the Germany until around 1960.

Strong Support for an American Chemical Engineer

The American chemical industry (initially following the German example, and why not?) employed chemists and mechanical engineers to perform the functions that would later be the chemical engineer's specialty. However these chemists were of an entirely different nature. The prominent research chemists employed in Germany were almost non-existent in America until after World War I. Instead the American chemical industry employed both analytical chemists (involved in materials testing and quality control) and a smaller number of production chemists (consisting of plant managers and chemical consultants engaged in engineering design, construction, and troubleshooting). However, unlike the highly praised German research chemists, these American counterparts were given very little respect from the chemical industry which employed them. It was noted that "analytical chemists were regarded as being of the same grade as machinists, draftsmen, and cooks." This low status carried over to the weekly paycheck, where in 1905 American analytical chemists received only half the salary of skilled artisans (R4).

Therefore at the turn of the Century, calling yourself a chemist did not bring the immediate admiration of your audience. Because of this many production chemists (people more closely engaged in management and engineering than chemistry) wanted very dearly to shed the term "chemist" from their title. While production chemists were still held in higher regard than their analytical cousins (and also higher paid, funny how that works) they still felt great anxiety over the falling status of chemists as a whole. In short, how could they assure that the production chemist would continue to keep their high status with manufacturers? This was a problem that could hit them where it would hurt most, the paycheck! The need for action was most imminent! As a solution, the production chemists began referring to themselves as chemical engineers (for this is what they were in practice if not in education), and engaged themselves in the formation of an institute devoted to securing greater recognition for their profession.

An "AIChE Breaky" Beginning

The formation of a society of chemical engineers was originally proposed by George Davis in 1880, a full ten years before the profession could boast of a formal education (see SETTING THE STAGE ). The first serious proposal for an American Society of Chemical Engineers was presented in a 1905 editorial by Richard K. Meade. He argued that such a society could help secure greater recognition for the chemical engineer, and also help convince the chemical industry that chemical engineers instead of mechanical engineers should be designing and operating their plants. The idea must have rung true, for in 1908 such an organization was formed (however its published goals did not include stealing jobs from mechanical engineers). Hence, the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was born.

In 1908, the year AIChE was formed, the powerful and influential American Chemical Society had already been around for 30 years and boasted nearly 5000 members. Additionally, this academic giant had recently committed itself to preventing anymore splinter groups from succeeding from the society. The ACS had been sensitized to the succession problem by the electrochemists and leather chemists who had left the ACS in 1902 and 1904 respectively. Both groups had formed their own independent societies to the dismay of the ACS. So when it seemed that the chemical engineers were also preparing to jump ship (and possible take a lot of production chemists with them, see Strong Support above) the ACS quickly reacted forming a "Division of Industrial Chemistry and Chemical Engineering."

Avoiding Conflict by "Speaking Softly"

Faced with the possibility of direct conflict with the ACS, AIChE decided on a course of action designed to minimize rivalry and remain on as good of terms as possible. It accomplished this in three main ways:

1) Utilizing very restrictive membership criteria (through 1930) so as not to pose a threat to ACS membership. Part of this exclusive criteria required a full 10 years of industrial experience (5 years if you had a B.S.), thereby excluding most chemists in academia from full membership. This selective criteria made membership very attractive to those who could gain it and many compared AIChE membership to belonging to an exclusive men's club.

2) Emphasizing a role in which AIChE membership would compliment, not compete with, ACS membership. By requiring industrial experience, the first wave of AIChE members included chemical manufactures, plant management, and consultants (the group formerly called production chemists, see Strong Support above) . This provided a distinct departure from the typical ACS member which was more likely than not to be associated with academia.

3) Finally, AIChE avoided conflict by always approaching possible problems with the utmost discretion. Whether it was membership criteria or the societies political activities; AIChE always acted in a methodical and conservative fashion. An example of this occurred in 1920, when the Institute considered adding a new class a membership so analytical chemists working in industry could also gain membership. However, it was recognized that this action conflicted with a founding principle that the Institute should cover a professional field not already represented by other societies. As usual, slow sustained growth was recognized as the way to establish the profession while not stepping on too many toes along the way.

The conservative course of action undertaken by AIChE may have slowed membership growth, but it certainly helped bring chemical engineers and chemists into a state of cooperation rather than competition.

How To Define Professional Boundaries?

Another challenge facing chemical engineers involved defining who they were and how they were unique? How the AIChE answered these questions had a tremendous impact on the industrial territory chemical engineers could lay claim to.

Certainly one way the profession could be defined was through the formal education its members received. Because of this AIChE spent a lot of time and effort evaluating and improving educational activities.

They strove to standardize the chemical engineering education which was often erratic and inconsistent. But how exactly to improve education? In an age when chemical engineers learned mountains of industrial chemistry; where each chemical had its own long and varied history of production, what central theme could chemical engineering education rally around?

The answer came in 1915, when in a letter to the President of MIT, Arthur Little stressed the potential of "unit operations" to distinguish chemical engineering from all other professions and also to give chemical engineering programs a common focus.

Unit Operations, The "Big Stick" of Chemical Engineering

In transforming matter from inexpensive raw materials to highly desired products, chemical engineers became very familiar with the physical and chemical operations necessary in this metamorphosis. Examples of this include: filtration, drying, distillation, crystallization, grinding, sedimentation, combustion, catalysis, heat exchange, extrusion, coating, and so on. These "unit operations" repeatedly find their way into industrial chemical practice, and became a convenient manner of organizing chemical engineering knowledge. Additionally, the knowledge gained concerning a "unit operation" governing one set of materials can easily be applied to others. Whether one is distilling alcohol for hard liquor or petroleum for gasoline, the underlying principles are the same!

The "unit operations" concept had been latent in the chemical engineering profession ever since George Davis had organized his original 12 lectures around the topic. However, it was Arthur Little who first recognized the potential of using "unit operations" to separate chemical engineering from other professions. While mechanical engineers focused on machinery, and industrial chemists concerned themselves with products, and applied chemists studied individual reactions, no one, before chemical engineers, had concentrated upon the underlying processes common to all chemical products, reactions, and machinery. The chemical engineer, utilizing the conceptual tool that was unit operations, could now claim to industrial territory by showing his or her uniqueness and worth to the American chemical manufacturer.

Educational Standardization & Accreditation

While the "unit operation" concept went a long way in standardizing the chemical engineering curriculum, it did not solve the whole problem. A 1922 AIChE report (headed by Arthur Little, the "originator" of the "unit operation" concept) pointed out the continuing need for standardization due to chronic divergence in nomenclature and inconsistencies in course arrangement and worth. Again AIChE took action by making chemical engineering the first profession to utilize accreditation in assuring course consistency and quality. AIChE representatives traveled across the country evaluating chemical engineering departments. In 1925 these efforts culminated with a list of the first 14 schools to gain accreditation (see EDUCATIONAL GROWTH). Such efforts were so effective in consolidating and improving chemical engineering education that other engineering branches quickly joined the effort, and in 1932 formed what would later become the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Summary: Some Details to Remember

People to Remember

Arthur D. Little

Consultant and co-founder, with William Walker, of "Little and Walker" which later became "Arthur D. Little, Inc." He coined the term "unit operations" in 1915 and headed up AIChE's Committee on Chemical Engineering Education which emphasized the "unit operation" concept along with accreditation to standardize courses in chemical engineering programs.

Places & Organizations of Interest

AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers)

AIChE is the smallest of the societies representing one of the "big four" engineering fields (mechanical, electrical, civil, and chemical engineering). The Institute was formed in June of 1908 as the sole institutional home for chemical engineers. However, almost before the echoes of McKenna's founding keynote address had finished reverberating with the audience, the ACS had launched a new division; joining in a battle for the chemical engineer's heart, mind, and financial dues.

Because of this, the AIChE spent the first third of its life as a very exclusive organization. While it contributed to industry through publications such as the "Transactions of AIChE" (which evolved into "Chemical Engineering Progress" in 1947 and still provides news and technical information today), or through scholastic accreditation, AIChE hardly represented the chemical engineering profession as a whole.

This changed in the 1930's when membership requirements were relaxed, and chemical engineers joined in droves. Today there are five classes of membership (student, affiliate, associate, member, and fellow) through which nearly 60,000 chemical engineers have become members (see AIChE & THE FUTURE). The Institute has a yearly budget of around $21 million, which it spends providing technical education, safety training, career counseling, governmental advising, and social activities for its members.

ACS (American Chemical Society)

ACS represents the best American chemistry has to offer. ACS grew rapidly after its founding in 1876 (even before chemical engineering existed). Because of its success, smaller factions within the society often felt they could go it alone, and splinter groups soon became a problem. At the turn of the century chemical engineers became one of these splinter groups, forming the AIChE in 1908. The ACS responded by creating the "Division of Industrial Chemistry & Chemical Engineering."

Today the ACS remains at the center of American Chemical developments boasting 150,000 members. Through its "Chemical Abstracts" service and "Chemical & Engineering News" the ACS continues to provide valuable information to chemists & chemical engineers alike. Despite bitter feelings concerning the creation of the AIChE, today chemical engineers and chemists have a relationship unlike anything found in other engineering fields.

A Brief History Through Quotations

(1880) Sir Harold Hartley said (in 1958, but referring to 1880): "From their experience in chemical plants, both chemists with an instinct for engineering and engineers with a taste for chemistry grew into chemical engineers without realizing it and indeed without being willing to admit it."

(1886) E. K. Muspratt said: "It is very difficult to find a manager who has a knowledge of engineering combined with a knowledge of chemistry. Such men must be educated, and it is only now .. that we are beginning to follow in [this] path." (shows the need for chemical engineers) (F6).

(1888) MIT catalog ("Course X") said in 1888-1889: "This course is arranged to meet the needs of students who desire a general training in mechanical engineering and to devote a portion of their time to the study of the application of chemistry to the arts, especially to those engineering problems which relate to the use and manufacture of chemical products." (chemical engineering education begins) (V1).

(1904) George Davis (in his "Handbook of Chemical Engineering) said: "The object of this handbook is not to enable anyone to erect works of special character ... but to illustrate the principles by which a plant of any kind may be designed and erected when certain conditions and requirements are known. We cannot make the best use of our abilities unless we are taught to investigate the principles underlying the construction of the appliances with which we have to work." (early recognition of the need to understand underlying physical and chemical principles in chemical engineering) (D1).

(1904) Hugo Schweitzer (at an ACS meeting) said: "I am absolutely against the introduction of chemical engineering in the education of chemists." (not everyone was excited about chemical engineering).

(1908) Charles McKenna (founder of AIChE referring to that founding) stated: "..the noblest aim before us, gentlemen, the one which most amply justifies us before all the world, is our ambition for the enlightenment and ample equipment of our successors: that is for the improvement of the training of the chemical engineer of the future." (education was important to AIChE from the start) (R3).

(1910) F. W. Atkinson (Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute) said: "Chemical engineering needs to be more sharply defined. Its scope is still in a somewhat indeterminate state and as yet its position as one of the professions is not clearly recognized." (defining what chemical engineers were, and what made them unique, was an early problem) (R3) .

(1911) Milton C. Whitaker (professor at Columbia University, stating his ideas of what chemical engineering education should consists of) said: "The chemical engineer works in the organization, operation and management of existing or proposed processes with a view to building up a successful manufacturing industry... His fundamental training in chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc., must be thorough and must be combined with a natural engineering inclination and an acquired knowledge of engineering methods and appliances." (Sounds pretty modern doesn't it?) (P2)

(1911) Olaf Hougen (an eminent professor at the University of Wisconsin, revealing that the actual teaching practices of the past were very different indeed) said in 1972: "The 1911 curriculum in chemical engineering ... bares no resemblance to that of today. ... there were: no courses in unit operation, none in material and energy balances, none in heat and mass transfer, none in thermodynamics for chemical engineers, none in chemical kinetics and catalysis, none in process design, none in process control ... and, physical chemistry was not a required course." (OK, so maybe their education wasn't so modern.) (H7)

(1915) Arthur D. Little (consultant responsible for bringing "unit operations" into the lime light) said: "Any chemical process, on whatever scale conducted, may be resolved into a coordinate series of what may be termed 'unit operations', as pulverizing, dyeing, roasting, crystallizing, filtering, evaporation, electrolyzing, and so on. The number of these basic unit operations is not large and relatively few of them are involved in any particular process. The complexity of chemical engineering results from the variety of conditions as to temperature, pressure, etc., under which the unit operations must be carried out in different processes, and from the limitations as to material of construction and design of apparatus imposed by the physical and chemical character of the reacting substances." (unit operations, the rallying point of chemical engineering for 30 years) (R3).

(1921) H. O. Chute (a chemical engineer specializing in distillations and holding over a dozen patents) said: "We are not even able to convince other engineers that we are engineers." (the unit operations concept was slow to take hold and did not solve all the problems) (R3).

(1922) A "monumental" AIChE report on education conducted by Arthur Little declared: "Chemical engineering..., as distinguished from the aggregate number of subjects comprised in courses of that name, is not a composite of chemistry and mechanical and civil engineering, but a science of itself, the basis of which is those unit operations which in their proper sequence and coordination constitute a chemical process as conducted on the industrial scale." (The heart of this report involved recommendations to stress the "unit operation" concept, standardize university programs, and begin university accreditation.) (R3).

(1922) Ralph McKee (AIChE director 1923-25) said: "The Committee have written a prescription, and it is our duty to see that the prescription is filled .. and given to the patients..." (AIChE takes action) (R3).

(1928) Alfred Holmes White (AIChE president 1929-30) said: "Almost all schools which teach chemical engineering now recognize these unit processes (i.e. unit operations) as providing the framework for the engineering side of chemical engineering." (unit operations a continued rallying point for standardization) (R3).

(1932) J. V. N. Dorr (AIChE president from 1932-33) said: "The four founder societies while tending originally to regard us as 'queer kinds of chemists' now recognize us as a fifth classification of basic engineering." ("Fifth" referring to Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Mining, and of course Chemical engineering). (It was working, the profession was becoming established) (R3).

Quotations from the University of Minnesota

(Don't take all of these too seriously!)

(1993) Rutherford Aris (or is it Aris Rutherford, sometimes it is hard to tell "Who's Who") (Chemical Engineering Professor at the University of Minnesota) said: " is easy to accept mathematical modeling as a poetic activity, for, in doing it, we are engaged in a form of imitating nature in mathematical terms." (A2)

(1995) Cussler said: "The score is kept in dollars!"

(1995) Lanny Schmidt said: "You can count the number of ... [insert your favorite phrase here] .... on the fingers of one hand of an explosives expert."

(1995) The University of Minnesota student bulletin said: "The chemical engineer is primarily a producer whose special province is to develop a process from its laboratory beginnings ... to full-scale production. Chemical engineering is based on applications of chemistry, physics, mathematics, economics, and increasingly, biology and biochemistry. Because of this broad-based foundation .. the chemical engineer is considered the universal engineer. ... Chemical engineering deals with unit operations... These operations are vital to the commercial success of industries based on chemical or physical transformation of matter. A chemist uses these operations qualitatively in a laboratory, but to apply them to a complex or large-scale industrial process requires a chemical engineer who has a complete and quantitative understanding of the engineering principles as well as the scientific principles on which the operations rest. ... Because many industries are based on some chemical or physical transformation of matter, the chemical engineer is much in demand." (I1)

more quotations to come...

Table of Contents

Setting the Stage (1888)

A Century of Contributions

"The end already...go back to the top."


Last updated on 4/4/98 by Wayne Pafko...
Copyright 2000, Wayne Pafko