Jürgen Schmidhuber's page on
Fritz Haber in 1891


Most influential persons of the 20th century
(according to Nature, July 29 1999)

Carl Bosch

Other scientists / inventors of the past two centuries whose impact was great but not quite as great:
1. Einstein (1915: general relativity)
2. Benz, Otto, Daimler (1876-1886: gasoline engine and car, quintessential machines of the 20th century)
3. Gauss (mathematician of the millennium)
4. Fleming (1928: Penicillin saves millions of lives)
5. Zuse (1935-41: first program- controlled computer) and Babbage (1830s: first designs of such computers); Lilienfeld (1928: transistor; also O. Heil, 1935, and Shockley et al., 1948)
6. Goedel (1931: limits of math and computation), Turing (1936: Turing machine, 1943: Nazi code breaker)
7. Mendel (1853: genetic theory), Darwin & Wallace (1858: evolution theory) and Crick, Watson, Wilkins, Franklin (1953: DNA)
8. Maxwell (1873: theory of electricity), Faraday (1800s: experiments), Siemens (1866: practical dynamo drives electricity era; 1892: electric locomotion), Edison (1877: phonograph; his employees and J.W. Swan improve light bulbs of Davy, Houdin, etc.)
9. Meucci, Reis, Bell (telephone) and Marconi (wireless communication for radio and cell phone)
10. Hahn & Meitner (1938: uranium fission, for A-bomb and nuclear power)
11. Planck (1900: quantum physics), Heisenberg (1925: uncertainty principle)
12. Freud (psychoanalysis)

Fritz Haber (left, 1.0 Nobel prizes in 1918) and Carl Bosch (right, 0.5 Nobels in 1931) have probably had a greater impact than anyone in the past 100 years, including Hitler, Gandhi, Einstein, etc.

Their Haber-Bosch process has often been called the most important invention of the 20th century (e.g., V. Smil, Nature 29(415), 1999) as it "detonated the population explosion," driving the world's population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to almost 8 billion today.

The 70 million deaths of World War I and World War II almost vanish next to these numbers. But Haber, a patriotic German Jew, shared some responsibility for those as well: his work helped Germany to significantly prolong WW I, and also to develop the Zyklon B poison gas used in WW II's Holocaust. Haber's almost paradoxical biography affected more lives and deaths than anybody else's.

Bosch was a co-founder of IG-Farben, the world's largest chemical company. After WW II the allies broke it up into three smaller parts, each still larger than any foreign chemical company.

In the past 200 years only the germ theory of disease by Pasteur & Koch (1868-1876) had an impact on mankind that rivals the one of the Haber-Bosch process. Compare the ongoing robot population explosion!

Haber-Bosch process:
Under high temperature and very high pressure, hydrogen and nitrogen (from thin air) are combined to produce ammonia. A century after its invention, the process is still applied all over the world to produce 500+ million tons of artificial fertilizer per year. 1% of the world's energy supply is used for it (Science 297(1654), 2002). In 2004, it sustained roughly 2 out of 5 people (Fryzuk, Nature 427(498), 2004). As of 2015, it already sustains nearly 1 out of 2; soon it will sustain 2 out of 3. Billions of people would never have existed without it; our dependence will only increase as the global count moves to ten billion people or so.
robot population explosion

Haber was a professor in Karlsruhe when he demonstrated the feasibility of ammonia synthesis in 1909. Bosch, an engineer at BASF in Ludwigshafen, then overcame some unprecedented engineering problems associated with the enormous pressure required by the process. Commercial production started in 1913. Within a few decades, the super-exponential effect on the world's population became obvious (right).

The process has "altered the global nitrogen cycle so fundamentally that the nearest suggested geological comparison refers to events about 2.5 billion years ago" (Nature, 519(172), 2015).

Was the Haber-Bosch process good or bad? Some say the world would be better off without so many people. In any case, no other invention of the past 200 years has had such an impact on our planet, neither cars nor flying machines nor computers etc...

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by J. Schmidhuber