The United States in the year 1915 was a place of prosperity, progress and innovation.

Woodrow Wilson led the nation as president, Henry Ford’s assembly line was producing its one-millionth vehicle and the Boston Red Sox won the 13th World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. Americans paid 15 cents for a gallon of gas and 26 cents for a pound of steak.

While, in the chemistry world, a German man, Richard Willstätter, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on the coloring matter of plants, chemists in America were hard at work, too, researching new processes and creating new products.
Scientists, engineers and chemical plant managers alike had been infusing the chemical processing industry (CPI) with a spirit of innovation since the first sulfuric acid was made in the U.S. in 1736.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century saw an explosion in both the quantity of production and variety of chemicals being manufactured. However, gears shifted in the second decade of the 20th century as World War I loomed. America’s impending involvement threatened the existing CPI, as access to valuable resources from Europe was limited or cut off completely.
Coordinating a response

So, in 1915, Dr. Charles Roth, the chief chemist for Standard Oil Company, teamed up with the International Exposition Company (IEC) to produce the very first Chem Show. Their goal was simple, straightforward and modest; to stimulate the domestic manufacturing of essential drugs, dyes and other chemicals. Ideally, a show of this nature would be such a success that it would diminish any need for importing from Europe.

It was fitting that the production team selected New York City as the location for the first show. For one, roughly 60% of exhibitors had New York addresses. Eighty-three companies set up exhibits showcasing their newest and best products to a few hundred curious chemists who attended the inaugural event. One of the attendees was the celebrated inventor Thomas Edison, creator of the light bulb, phonograph and earliest motion picture camera.

Then age 68 and far into his career, Edison’s passion for discovery and innovation never waned. In 1915 he created the first synthetic form of carbolic acid, when the war’s high demand for phenols war made supplies uncertain. When Germany cut off supplies of paraphenylenediamine (PPD), which is commonly used in dyes and inks and was used by Edison to manufacture records for phonographs, he created a synthetic version.

In 1915 alone he started four highly successful chemical processing plants. Edison and other innovators were continuously searching for ways to improve the future of the country’s CPI. Attending the Chem Show gave them new ideas, which led to new inventions and new domestic production.

To dramatic effect

Within three years, participation in the Chem Show grew by 250%. The number of exhibitors increased from eighty-three in 1915 to 288 in 1917. The dramatic growth in the early years showed just how necessary an event like this was for the CPI in America. The Chem Show thrived in the early 1920s as the number one resource for showcasing new inventions and continued as an annual event in New York City until 1923 when it changed to a biennial show. Since then it has been held every other year, with two shows in 1980 and 1984 in Chicago.

A good number of brand-name companies have been part of the Chem Show lineup over the years, including Baker Chemicals, Duriron Castings, E. I. DuPont, Merck and Monsanto.

While the first shows were dominated by chemical manufacturing companies, the focus has since shifted to equipment manufacturers. Yet, of the 83 companies participating in the first Chem Show, one still participates today.

This year’s Chem Show will include more than 300 exhibitors. When Dr. Roth and executives at IEC laid plans for the first Chem Show, they never imagined that 100 years later the Show would still be standing firm as the number one event of its kind. Exhibitors continue to come back year after year to display their latest innovations, while industry professionals return to see what’s new in the ever-changing world of chemical equipment manufacturing.

The 2015 Chem Show will be held Nov. 17-19 at the Javits Center in New York.