5 Chapter 5: PRAGUE 1800 – 1920 – Food innovation, industrial leadership and the availability of nitrite

Old Prague Logansport_Pharos_Tribune_Sat__Oct_19__1895_
Prague, Logansport Pharos Tribune, 19 Oct. 1895

Germany’s neighbor and ally in World War One, the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the key cities of Prague, Vienna and Budapest, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s led the world in many respects in matters pertaining to science and technology.  In Bohemia and regions surrounding Prague the industries were leading Europe in innovation.  (Turmock, D.;1989: 40)  It was reported that in many respects, industry  in this region surpassed Germany.

A huge textile industry developed in Vienna.  In Prague, cotton printing became the dominant industry with the accompanied dyes industry.  Bohemia, in general, had well-developed textile manufacturing.  (Hiemstra-Kuperus, E. 2010)  This means that by the early 1900’s, sodium nitrite was available in and around the city of Prague.

Prague and surrounding areas were not just a consumer of chemicals.  The scientific and industrial environment was sophisticated and advanced and they produced many of the chemicals for their industry themselves, primarily in support of the textile printing industry.  The point is that we when we deal with the people in Prague, we are talking about people who understood chemistry (my personal experience is that this is still the case to this day).

D. Hirsch, for example, established his factory in Prague to “provide acid for calico printing in 1835.”  F. X. Brosche supplied  printing inks, paint, and pharmaceuticals.  The first major chemicals producer in the area was Johann David (J. D.) Starck had a sulfuric acid plant near Zwittau (now Svitavy in the Czech Republic), 183km to the east of from Prague, in 1810.

Between 1810 and 1850, J. D. Starck expanded into a multi-plant operation manufacturing a variety of products including phosphates at Kaznau (now Kosnejov, in the Czech Republic), 109km South West of Prague.   He was big enough to own his own source of coal from the Falknov (Sokolov) basin.   (Turmock, D.;1989:  39)  It all supports a picture of sodium nitrite being readily available in Prague as part of the chemicals associated with the dying and textile printing industry. [1]  More than that, the Bohemian people proofed to be innovative and capable in matters pertaining to chemistry.

At the end of the 1800 and beginning of the 1900’s, Prague was a fertile breeding ground for industrial and food innovations.  A case in point is the phenomenal success of Pilsner named after the city of Pilsen (Plzen).  The innovation was the application of steam power to the production of chilled lager.  It was an important improvement on the old processes and helped the town of Pilsen to become one of the great European beer producers. (Turmock, D.;1989: 40)

Another Bohemian innovation was the invention of the sugar beet refining process through diffusion to produce refined sugar.  “The diffusion process was discovered in Seelowitz  (Zidlochovice) in Moravia by J. Robert, the son of the founder of the first sugar beer factory in the Czech lands.”  Within a few years, 25 other factories converted to this process and sugar refining machines were being exported to Germany and France.  The Prague-based engineering firm of C. Danek (founded in 18540) was particularly successful.   (Turmock, D.;1989: 40)

The kingdom boasted the most sophisticated food industry with a very strong scientific backing from the local academia in Prague.  Under their leadership, the first food code in industrialized Europe was created, the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus, which is the basis for international food legislation to this day.   (The Life and Times of Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER – The Codex Alimentarius Austriacus) It also became the first country in the world to specifically allow the use of sodium nitrite in food, before Germany and the US.

Not just was Prague and the Bohemian people leading the world in food innovation and food science and chemistry, but the existence of large food industries created an environment where other food industries would benefit, for example, the meat industry.  (Turmock, D.;1989: 39, 40)



1. Azo dye and textile colouring in 1895.

“Dyeing with Diazotised Dyestuffs

All the diazotised dyestuffs belong to the substantive group, and therefore, all that has been said with regard to these dyestuffs and their manner of application applies to the former also. In the majority of instances, however, the dyeings obtained direct are not sufficiently fast to be usable in that condition. Nevertheless, they can be converted into fast dyeings — provided the dyestuff contains free amino groups — by diazotising, followed by developing or coupling. The chemical reactions and method of procedure are just the sam.e as in the case of cotton.

In practice, the diazotising is effected in the following manner : —

The dyed and rinsed silk is entered at once into the cold diazotising bath and is worked about constantly for fifteen to thirty minutes. For each 100 parts of silk, the bath contains 3 parts of sodium nitrite dissolved in 1500-2000 parts of cold water, 8-10 parts of crude hydrochloric acid (20° Be.) being added. The operation must be conducted in wooden vats, metal vessels or fittings (lead excepted) being unsuitable. At one time, ice was used for cooling during the process, but this has been given up in favour of water at ordinary temperature, and in some cases, e. g. diazo indigo blue, the bath may be allowed to rise to 20-30° C. As a rule, the diazotisation will be complete in fifteen minutes, though some dyestuffs take longer and have to be left in the nitrite bath for half an hour. The goods are centrifuged or squeezed, contact with metal being avoided. A lead-lined hydro-extractor may be used, or else the goods must be wrapped in packing-cloth.

The intermediate diazo compound formed on the fibre is very unstable and sensitive to light, especially direct sunlight. The operation must, therefore be carried on in a shady room, and care be taken to prevent any part of the diazotised goods from getting dry, or streaks and spots will be formed in the coupling stage. The diazotised material is rinsed and then immediately entered in the developing bath. The nitrite baths will keep for a considerable time, and can be freshened up for use by the addition of one-third the original amounts of nitrite and acid. During the whole process the bath should smell strongly of nitrous acid. In the case of light shades the bath may be weaker in nitrite and acid.” (Ganswindt, A; 1895: 98, 99) BACK TO POST


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