Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
April 6, 2015 Arts & Culture

Brave New Butter

In the early 20th century, chemists prophesied a future that seemed both surreal and somehow within reach.


As 1939 drew to a close and war spread across Europe, the Associated Press ran a peculiar story: the Nazis were on the verge of converting coal into butter. Word had come from an expatriate German scientist, Willy Lange, who had informed a group of American scientists. It was unsettling news because a warring country with the technology to turn fuel into food might continue to function even with its farmland captured and its population besieged.

“Coal butter” didn’t make headlines because it was sensational and unbelievable but because it sounded remarkably plausible. Contemporary scientists, especially chemists, had repeatedly predicted an impending revolution in edible technologies, from steak tablets to plain white bread that could provide complete nutrition.

By the 1930s chemists were synthesizing all manner of medicines, nutrients, and industrial products. Readers could see the range of chemistry’s impact by simply scanning the newspapers. Not only did they feature advertisements for products of industrial chemistry, such as vitamins and cosmetics, they also announced news of the impending Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

Consumer goods were becoming increasingly artificial in nature. Even so, Lange and the Associated Press got a bit overexcited. It was true that German chemists were figuring out how to convert solid coal into a range of liquid substances. There are some similarities between fuel and food: after all, fossil fuels are made mostly of ancient plant material, and butter is really just digested grass and grain. But coal, transformed through the Fischer-Tropsch process that German scientists were developing, yields a diverse mixture of alcohols, waxes, and synthetic oils. Some of the oils can be further processed into margarine—but only if you separate them from the gasoline and lubricating oils that don’t really belong on your morning toast. Extracting edible oils from coal was both impractical and inefficient.

The butter story fits into a familiar and often charming genre of scientific speculation. Among its earliest practitioners was the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot. When McClure’s Magazine profiled him in 1894, he confidently predicted the disappearance of farms and pastures by the year 2000. “Why not,” he asked, “if it proved cheaper and better to make the same materials than to grow them?” Steaks would come in the form of tablets instead of tenderloins. Fruits would be grown purely for decoration because synthetic foods would replace them on the kitchen table.

Berthelot spoke with the self-assurance of a man who had contributed to a chemical revolution. In 1827, the year of his birth, chemistry was little more than an analytical science. It had long sought to classify, describe, and break down molecules, but hardly anyone was trying to build them. A year later this began to change when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler first synthesized urea (best known as a component of urine). By the time Berthelot came of age as a chemist, his field had matured enough that he was able to synthesize one organic substance after another, from methanol and ethanol to benzene and acetylene. A new branch of chemistry was forming, focused not only on analyzing or combining known substances but also on building known and unknown substances from scratch. During his years in the laboratory Berthelot—along with the generation of chemists that followed him—grew confident that chemical synthesis was the way of the future. In the McClure’s profile he announced that a meal in the year 2000 would feature little more than balls of starch, portions of savory fats, and tablets of nitrogenous material.

He wasn’t the only one to make sweeping predictions. In 1904 H. G. Wells published the novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth in which two scientists synthesize a growth hormone. They test it first on wasps and chickens, which grow to a terrifying seven times their normal size. When the scientists sneak the hormones to human subjects, it creates a new race of giant humans that prompts fear and protest among the normal-sized population. Scientists of the era expected chemistry to produce incredible results, though as Food of the Gods attests, it wasn’t entirely clear whether all these results would benefit mankind. A few years later French surgeon Alexis Carrel placed tissue from a chicken heart in distilled water, muscle extract, and blood plasma. Soon after, he announced that living cells could multiply indefinitely if their environment is regularly cleaned and provided with fresh nutrients. Decades later Carrel’s experiment was shown to be flawed, but at the time news of his findings swept the world. Newspapers and scientists alike theorized wildly about the possibilities of an infinite food supply and even human immortality.

The loudest voices were the most optimistic. A 1910 McClure’s piece by the then well-known journalist Burton Hendrick began with the remark that medicine might eradicate all contagious diseases within the next 25 years. The chronic diseases that would remain—from cancer to arthritis to kidney inflammation—should be understood as the results of a “deranged metabolism.” In other words, according to Hendrick, “Nearly all the evils of middle life and old age are caused by unintelligent eating.”

New research was feeding a new narrative of food, which compared the body to a machine. “The food we eat, expending itself in energy,” wrote Hendrick, “is the coal or wood that makes the mechanism do its work.” The most extreme variation of this belief was that humans simply needed a fixed number of calories to survive. (Some well-meaning reformers, based on this logic, suggested that poor people subsist on candy.) A slightly more nuanced approach categorized foods as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and emphasized the correct balance between the three as the key to health.

To a chemist in the 1920s it must have looked like Berthelot’s vision of steak tablets was practically within reach. For decades researchers had been predicting that an increasing population would eventually overtax the planet’s resources. But this was an era of mighty industrial chemistry: synthetic nitrogen fertilizers were doubling farm yields in parts of the United States. Products from the laboratory had become the renewable alternative to the natural world’s fixed resources.

If food was ultimately a combination of chemicals, scientists theorized, perhaps all food could be produced in the laboratory. Simple sugars and certain fats had already been created in the lab, as if in confirmation of Berthelot’s predictions. So had a wide range of the amino acids that make up proteins. In 1924 chemist Carl Alsberg wrote, “There is every reason to believe that the three groups of foodstuffs—carbohydrates, fats, and amino acids—can or shortly will be producible by artificial means.” The challenge wasn’t the chemistry, he felt, but rather the energy required. By Alsberg’s calculations it would take much of America’s coal resources to produce enough food calories for the whole country. In other words, he thought the easy part would be converting fuel into food. The hard part would be finding enough fuel.

These predictions didn’t disappear but simply adapted as chemists ran into new challenges. In 1926, reflecting on the many lubricants, glues, and hormones extracted during meat processing, E. B. Forbes, an agricultural chemist, predicted that animal bones and skin would be reduced to amino acids and used to fill gaps in our diets. In 1949 chemist Eugene Rochow predicted a world of 15 billion vegetarians who would grow yeast proteins and convert cellulose into food. (His main worry: he thought the planet would face shortages of carbon dioxide as it scaled up production.)

It’s easy to criticize scientists of centuries past for letting their imaginations get away from them—but we should also remember that many of the substances of our present day would astonish people of the 19th century. Synthetic fertilizers have revolutionized real-world food production; synthetic flavor and genetically modified food have transformed our economy and our eating habits; chemotherapies now tackle cancers that a century ago hadn’t even been identified.

Predictions are a sign that scientists remember how to dream big, even if some predictions fail. In 1919 chemist Edwin Slosson offered an elegant explanation for why scientific prophecies fall short. Contemporary chemists were hoping to synthesize the taste, smell, and nutrition of natural foods, he wrote, in the way that a second-rate orchestra might try to mimic a first-rate philharmonic—by listening at the window as a hundred instruments combine in a delicate symphony. “Aha!” Slosson imagined the eavesdropper saying. “Fifty percent of the sound is made by the tuba, twenty percent by the bass drum, fifteen percent by the cello and ten percent by the clarinet. There are some other instruments, but they are not loud and I guess if we can leave them out nobody will know the difference.”

The chemical world has the complexity and diversity of a symphony, so perhaps it makes sense that we still aren’t spreading coal butter onto synthetic toast. But we should be glad that chemists keep trying to mimic the orchestra; it helps us listen more carefully to the music.

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