When the world was younger, people in just about every culture on earth discovered that natural substances like vegetable peels, bark and roots, or the crushed up bodies of insects, or certain crushed minerals could dye fabrics, woods and leather. We’ve been using these substances for thousands of years. But vegetable dyes tend to fade after washing, or in the sun, and some substances, like those crushed bodies of insects, were a lot of work, and were so precious and expensive, that the colors they produced were reserved only for royalty. Scientists during the 19th century were looking for new ways to permanently dye cloth and other materials, but the answer was not found in a dedicated search. Like many great products and inventions, it was discovered totally by accident, while trying to create something else.
Aniline dyes were first produced in 1826, from indigo, a natural plant dye that’s been around for centuries. In 1834, it was first distilled from coal tar, a by-product of coal used in coke or coal gas production. But blue was the only color they could make. One day, in 1856, an 18 year old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin was in his lab, trying to produce artificial quinine, an anti-malarial drug, which is also made from a coal tar distillate. He made a purple aniline dye called mauvine, instead. Mauve is all Henry Perkin’s fault.
This discovery started a revolution in dye production that resulted in affordable, long lasting chemical dyes in all sorts of vivid colors. The late Victorian penchant for bright, gaudy color combinations in fabric and home decor stems from their fascination with what these dyes could produce. With aniline dyes, even the once precious royal purple could be worn by anyone. But aniline dyes were toxic and dangerous to work with. Coal tars, acids and other chemicals were like dynamite. One had to be careful, or you could blow the place sky high. It happened far too often, and it happened in 1914, here in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
By the beginning of the 20th century, it was a well-established fact that the best aniline dyes were produced in Germany. Although the basic process was known in other countries, what set the German dyes apart, and made them the best, was their use of certain chemicals called intermediates that were added in the dye making process. These chemicals were derived from coal tars, and the formulas were a secret, known only to the small number of German chemical companies that were controlled by the aniline dye conglomerates.
The conglomerate would sell the intermediates to other companies, such as the American aniline dye manufacturers, but they did not share the recipe for making them. So if American companies wanted to make good dyes, they had to get their intermediates from Germany. This was not the desired solution, but it was the general practice, until 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, and a World War broke out in Europe.
Germany was the aggressor in that war, and no one felt the new hostility towards that nation more than the thousands of German Americans living in the United States. One of them was a brilliant scientist named Dr. William G. Beckers, the founder of the Beckers Aniline and Chemical Works, located at 107-113 Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Dr. Beckers had been born in Germany, in 1874, and was the son of a noted chemist, Gerard Beckers. He received his education in Aix La Chappelle, Germany, then Heidelberg University, and received a PhD in chemistry from the University of Freiburg, in 1897.
He became an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Dye School in Germany, and then joined the Bayer Company, manufacturer of dyestuffs and chemicals, and became the head of the technical department there. In 1902, he was appointed the head of the technical department in Bayer’s American branch, and he moved with his family to the United States, and became a naturalized citizen here in 1911.The next year, he founded the Beckers Aniline and Chemical Works, located before zoning laws, in a residential neighborhood, next door to the Wilkinson Company, which manufactured lamps, chandeliers and shades, on the corner of Underhill and St. Marks Avenues.
The Beckers Company soon became one of the country’s best makers of aniline dyestuffs. Their dyes were especially popular with wool manufacturers, producing rich colors that lasted the life of the fabric. William Becker became quite rich. But when World War I broke out, it soon became impossible to import the intermediaries. Beckers had a lab full of excellent chemists, including himself, so why not try to figure out the Germans’ formulae, and make the chemical intermediaries themselves? It became an obsessive mission for Dr. Beckers and his staff, and they worked long days mixing the flammable and toxic soup that was so necessary for a good product. It was a matter of business life or death.
In the fall of 1914, Dr. Beckers had just returned to Brooklyn from Germany, in a last ditch attempt to obtain the secret formula for the intermediaries. He thought he was almost there. He was being assisted in the lab by a young man named Walter Ernest Haaren, an assistant chemist who must have reminded Dr. Beckers of himself. He was bright, inquisitive, and fearless in his pursuit of the formula. Young Haaren was 24, and lived in Harlem with his father. He had recently graduated from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Beckers was also assisted by another young chemist, 30 year old Adolph Wolters, who lived nearby on 24 Sterling Place.
Around 3:30 in the afternoon, on November 13, 1914, Dr. Beckers, Ernest Haaren and Adolph Wolters were all in the company laboratory, on the second floor of the two story factory building on Underhill Avenue. They were all working with extremely volatile substances, and there had already been a couple of small fires and small explosions in the lab already in the past few weeks. But great wealth and personal success was at stake here, and all of the staff was certain that Beckers Aniline would soon possess the secret German formulae, they were soooo close.
Dr. Beckers left the second floor lab for a meeting with his sales staff, leaving Walter Haaren alone with the chemicals. Adolph Wolters was somewhere else in the lab. Minutes later, a huge explosion occurred, so large, it blew out every window on the second floor, and collapsed the floor onto the ground floor below. It was as if a bomb had gone off, and technically, one had. Ernest Haaren was killed instantly. Every door in the factory was blown off its hinges, and window sashes went flying across the street. A side wall collapsed, and the other walls tottered. Shards of window glass flew like missiles, and the effects of the blast were felt for miles, but devastated that block of Underhill, between St. Marks Avenue and Prospect Place.
The chemical plant should never have been allowed to be in a residential neighborhood, but this was before zoning laws were implemented in full. Such laws were a new urban concept, the idea taken from Germany, ironically enough. Beckers Aniline and Chemical was on the eastern side of Underhill, and shared the block with the Wilkinson Lamp factory. The Wilkerson factory building is still there today, and is now housing. Directly across the street were brick tenement buildings, and in the surrounding block were larger flats buildings. The main building of the Beckers factory was only two stories tall, the rest of the block was taken up by an annex, with an alley leading to a foreman’s cottage, and the remaining lots on that side of the block were taken up by more tenements.
The initial explosion literally blew the majority of the twenty-odd workers on the ground floor out of the building. They were hurled to the street, dazed and bruised, some with serious lacerations and broken bones, but alive. The force of the explosion had saved their lives, as the second floor collapsed right afterward. Dr. Beckers was one of them; shards of glass had nearly severed his ear, which hung from his head.
When the explosion occurred, it blew out the windows of Dr. J. B. Neary, whose medical office was diagonally across the street on Prospect Place. The force of the explosion was so great, it knocked a young patient out of bed. Dr. Neary was knocked down himself, but recovered and immediately turned his office into an emergency room. He treated Dr. Beckers and the other workers, as well as two women who lived in the adjoining tenement who were severely cut by flying glass.
A plant foreman, John Hartwiger, lived with his wife and children in the cottage down the alley from the plant. When the explosion occurred, he had been blown out of his chair out onto the street. Although suffering from burns on his face and hands, he immediately rushed to the cottage to get his family out. He found the cottage windows blown out, and the porch destroyed, but they were unharmed.
John Wilkinson, the owner of the lamp factory next door, had just returned to his ground floor office with the week’s payroll. His chauffeur and car were still outside waiting for him. His plant’s forge room was the only space between his factory and Beckers’. When the explosion occurred, he too, was blown out of his chair. He initially thought it was his forge that had exploded, but when he found out what had happened, he put his car and chauffeur at the disposal of the emergency crews. The chauffeur, a black man named George Layton, had been standing next to the car when the building blew up. He had been knocked across the street, but was only bruised. He rallied, and took several people to the hospital, or to their homes.
The entire neighborhood was out on the street, helping pick the men up from the street, helping the remainder crawl out from the rubble, and from the homes next door and across the street, and a huge crowd was gathering around the destroyed factory. The fire department arrived quickly, but just as they pulled up, another large explosion occurred from inside the factory, as the acids and unstable chemicals reacted with great force once again. This explosion set the ruins on fire, and the fire department found themselves fighting a dangerous chemical fire. As the men pushed into the building with their hoses, a faint cry for help could be heard above the din. There was someone still trapped inside. GMAP
Next time: You’ll have to read next Tuesday, as the story of the Beckers Aniline and Chemical Works factory and Doctor William Beckers continues. The story is nowhere near over yet.
(Above illustration of the invention of mauvine analine dye, from pysanky.info)