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1865-1901

“Badische Anilin- & Sodafabrik”, a stock corporation, is founded in Mannheim on April 6, 1865. The young company is intended to produce dyes, as well as the inorganic chemicals needed for doing so. When attempts fail to purchase a site in Mannheim on the Baden side of the Rhine, the facilities are built on the opposite river bank, in Ludwigshafen in the Palatinate region.

Friedrich Engelhorn (1821-1902, goldsmith and entrepreneur, Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors from 1865 to 1883), who owns a coal gas company in Mannheim, very quickly recognizes the opportunities for coal tar, a byproduct of his company’s business. In 1861, he begins producing fuchsin (magenta), a red dye, and aniline, the raw material obtained from coal tar.

But he has bigger ideas – a company that spans the entire production process, from raw materials and auxiliaries through precursors and intermediates to dyes. In 1865, Engelhorn turns his groundbreaking idea into reality. On April 6, he founds a stock corporation in Mannheim under the name Badische Anilin- & Sodafabrik. After the planned acquisition of a site in Mannheim falls through, the manufacturing facilities are built on the opposite side of the Rhine River in Ludwigshafen, then part of the kingdom of Bavaria.

BASF’s founding father Friedrich Engelhorn
BASF’s founding father Friedrich Engelhorn

Occupational safety and healthcare, and the construction of employee housing lay the foundation for a comprehensive social policy tradition. The first company physician is hired in 1866. Around the turn of the century, the medical department moves into a new infirmary on the site.

In the second half of the 19th century, Ludwigshafen is one of the fastest growing cities in Germany. The housing shortage becomes an urgent social problem. The construction of company housing is mentioned as early as 1865 in BASF’s application for an operating license. A year after the company is founded, four buildings are built on the edge of the site, in the extreme southwest. These contain apartments and sleeping accommodation for workers.

Modest beginnings: BASF in 1866
Modest beginnings: BASF in 1866

However, the first coal tar dyes are disappointing as they are neither colorfast nor lightfast (i.e., they fade). The traditional natural dyes madder (Turkey red and indigo) continue to dominate the market, but can no longer satisfy growing demand from the textile industry. This calls for intensive chemical research. In 1868, BASF appoints the chemist Heinrich Caro (1834-1910, chemist at BASF from 1868 to 1889) as its first head of research. The first research activities take place in a laboratory in Mannheim. When that property is sold, research continues in a lab situated next to the main gate of the Ludwigshafen site, the forerunner of the main laboratory.

In collaboration with Berlin-based professors Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, Heinrich Caro successfully synthesizes the first natural dye in 1869: Alizarin, a red dye derived from the root of the madder plant, mainly used to dye cotton, becomes BASF’s first global success story. Other new dyes such as eosin, true red and auramine follow.

In 1872, construction begins on the large “Hemshof colony,” a development encompassing more than 400 dwellings that provides BASF workers with affordable housing. All the houses in the colony are detached, surrounded by gardens and divided into four apartments each. The workers’ houses have one and-a-half storeys: Each apartment has two parlors, a bedroom, kitchen, two basement rooms and a garden. The houses for supervisors and foremen have two-and-a-half storeys, and each apartment has three parlors, two bedrooms, a kitchen, basement room and a garden. In addition to the Hemshof colony, housing for white-collar employees is built next to the site in the following years.

Social commitment: The first company housing estate in Hemshof around 1880
Social commitment: The first company housing estate in Hemshof around 1880

The successful synthesis of alizarin opens the world’s markets to BASF. However, the company still lacks a proper sales organization. It therefore merges with two well-known dye merchants in Stuttgart in 1873, Knosp and Siegle. BASF has already been channeling most of its sales through these companies as both have worldwide trading networks with more than 5,000 customers. Moreover, they operate their own “inspection” dyeworks, an applications-oriented department with close contacts to customers. Production facilities and sales offices are set up abroad: in New York in 1873, in Butirki near Moscow in 1877 and in Neuville-sur-Saône, France, in 1878. Siegle’s Stuttgart-based pigment production reverts to Siegle in 1889. In 1970, BASF acquires the entire Siegle Group in order to expand its pigment operations.

BASF is also involved in the public debate on health and welfare benefits for workers in industry. To safeguard its workers, it establishes a health insurance plan in 1875 that pays sickness benefits solely out of company funds.

In 1876, Heinrich Caro succeeds in synthesizing a pure blue dye for cotton – methylene blue. A year later, BASF is awarded Germany’s first patent for a coal tar dye for methylene blue. However, methylene blue plays an increasingly important role not just in the textile industry, but in medicine, too. Medical pioneer Robert Koch, for example, uses it to stain the tubercle bacillus in his research on tuberculosis.

From the Imperial Patent Office, founded in 1877: The first German dye patent protects the production process for methylene blue.
From the Imperial Patent Office, founded in 1877: The first German dye patent protects the production process for methylene blue.

In 1880, Adolf von Baeyer, a chemist at the University of Munich, successfully synthesizes indigo, the most important natural dye at that time. BASF, together with the Hoechst Dyeworks, acquires the rights to use the indigo patent, thus joining the race to produce indigo on an industrial scale. For many years, the venture remains unsuccessful due to the inability to produce the raw material cost-effectively on a large scale. It is not until 10 years later that Professor Karl Heumann of Zurich discovers a suitable synthesis technique, which is adopted by BASF and Hoechst. But this process still does not yield sufficient indigo. A second synthesis method by Heumann, to which BASF and Hoechst also own the rights, appears to be more successful. Thereby BASF paves the way for production of indigo on an industrial scale.

Color sampler
Color sampler

A local telephone network is set up in Ludwigshafen in 1882. The first subscriber to be connected is the Badische Anilin- & Sodafabrik. It is also the first phone connection in Bavaria, to which the Palatine Ludwigshafen belongs at that time.

In connection with Bismarck’s social security system, BASF introduces the first company health insurance plan in 1884. It provides much more than the law requires. The new plan represents a major step forward and features a significant improvement in the protection of workers’ families at a time when a breadwinner’s long illness could threaten the livelihood of families.

In 1887, a small three-kilowatt generator powering two arc lights at the Rhine quay and in the coal storage area marks the dawn of the age of electricity at the Ludwigshafen site. BASF is self-sufficient in electricity until 1938 – by which time BASF has 121,000 kilowatts of generator capacity. After this date, RWE, a public utility, supplies additional power.

There are now 18 small laboratories at the Ludwigshafen site. Most, however are ancillary operations conducting trials and experiments, and some are even housed in huts – not a good basis for efficient research, which, even then, is necessary to keep up with the fierce competition for national and international trademarks, patents and process expertise. Research requires a more efficient organization and more staff. A dedicated research building is urgently needed. BASF starts building its “main laboratory” next to the administrative headquarters in 1887. At the same time, an analytical laboratory and pilot plant for small-scale trials are set up. A company patent lab headed by Heinrich Caro is also established in the main laboratory to handle domestic and international patent issues.

BASF in 1881: Belching smokestacks
BASF in 1881: Belching smokestacks

BASF needs growing volumes of fuming sulfuric acid (oleum) to manufacture anthraquinone sulfonic acid, the basic substance for alizarin dyes. The key suppliers are vitriol distilleries in Bohemia, which cannot keep pace with rising demand: Oleum becomes scarce and expensive. Rudolf Knietsch (1854 – 1906, chemist at BASF from 1884 to 1906) develops an economic alternative process in 1888. His sulfuric acid contact process makes BASF the largest sulfuric acid producer in the world at this time. At the same time, the way is paved for catalytic processing. In the same year, Knietsch introduces another groundbreaking invention: liquefaction of chlorine, a gaseous element. Until then such efforts had been frustrated by the exceptional aggressiveness of the substance. Now it becomes possible to store, transport and process chlorine, an important raw material for the chemical industry, in liquid form. Its purity and easy transportability in gas bottles makes the product a bestseller for the expanding company.

In January 1890, patent office, later to become the patent department, is established after Caro’s departure. A letter circulated by the management says: “From today, all patent matters will be attended to by Dr. Glaser, assisted by attorney Hecht, in the patent office.” The patent department is responsible for formulating, submitting and defending patent applications, handling trademarks as well as dealing with patent disputes with competitors. Between 1877 and 1888, 60 patents resulting from the company’s research activities are registered in Germany. Between 1889 and 1900, the number of patent registrations rises to 468.

The multitude of newly developed dyes means customers in the textile industry need comprehensive care and advice. The various applications and production dyeworks on the site can no longer meet this demand. As a result, a central technical dyeworks facility is established in 1891, the forerunner of BASF’s Application Technology Department (AWETA).

Eugen Sapper (1858 – 1912, chemist at BASF from 1883 to 1887 and 1890 to 1912) discovers the catalytic phthalic acid process, allowing phthalic acid, which is used to produce numerous dyes, to be produced more simply and more economically.

In 1892, BASF starts building Europe’s first public sanatorium for company employees with tuberculosis in Palatine region of Dannefels in the Palatinate. Another home is built in Kirchheimbolanden in 1904. In Albersweiler-St. Johann, a rest home for the wives and children of BASF blue- and white-collar workers opens in 1914. Another rest home in Kirnhalden in the Black Forest opens its doors to BASF white-collar workers in 1920/21.

Price list cover 1896
Price list cover 1896

After 17 years of intensive research and 18 million gold marks of investment – more than BASF’s share capital at that time – BASF successfully launches its synthetic “pure indigo from BASF” in 1897, winning the race to manufacture the “king” of natural dyes. A profitable market is expected to develop. However, indigo soon has to make way for an in-house rival. BASF’s colorfast and lightfast indanthrene dyes are increasingly replacing indigo. Later, indigo will experience a renaissance in the mid-1960s, when blue jeans become fashionable for an entire generation and indigo becomes a pillar of BASF’s dye business for a second time.

From the Annual Report 1898: “Of all our new products, synthetic indigo is the most important. The expectations, which we had hoped existed on the basis of the product’s outstanding properties and its potential for acceptance and sales volumes, have been completely fulfilled. The results of practical trials soon convinced customers of the huge advantages offered by the new indigo and its applications. Any doubts raised about the nature of the synthetic product compared with natural indigo in order to discredit the synthetic product have been dispelled.”

Indigo – “King of Dyes”: The key patent is granted in 1890
Indigo – “King of Dyes

From the Paris World’s Fair catalog of 1900: “Badische Anilin- & Sodafabrik is without question the largest chemical producer in the world. At its site in Ludwigshafen on the Rhine, it employs 148 scientifically trained chemists, 75 engineers and technicians, and 305 commercial staff. The number of employees, of whom there were 30 when the company was founded in 1865, has risen steadily and reached 6,207 on January 1, 1900.”

1900 sees the construction of the second major housing colony. According to an excerpt from the Annual Report: “Land prices in the immediate vicinity of the site have soared unjustifiably. Speculators have made it virtually impossible to acquire large parcels of land. We have sought a solution and found one. We have purchased a large estate (Limburgerhof) right next to the railway station in Mutterstadt, which is linked to our site by railway and is only 8 kilometers away. Here we plan to build a workers’ colony which we will be able to expand as required. Workers will be able to get directly to the factory from there using specially organized trains.”

Built for its senior management and workers”: BASF’s Gesellschaftshaus
Built for its senior management and workers: BASF’s Gesellschaftshaus

BASF’s Gesellschaftshaus opens in late December. The social center includes dining and social rooms for senior management, a library with reading room for workers and a hall for festive events. The company’s social policy it represents is described as follows: “The management of BASF already demonstrated in the company’s early years that the responsibilities it has toward its workers and salaried staff are not restricted to the payment of wages and salaries on a scale determined by overall economic conditions… Many types of responsibilities had to be fulfilled. They were initially restricted to the plant and covered accident prevention measures and sanitary and hygiene measures. The latter were soon extended not only beyond the plant, but to family members too, covering assistance for housing, health care, medical treatment and prevention. Nor did they stop at physical welfare, but also included improving the economic situation of workers and promoting their cultural and intellectual welfare. Foundations and funds were established to secure, as far as possible, the long-term future of the workforce, to help them in difficult situations, and in this way encourage and foster a sense of attachment to the company.”

René Bohn (1862 – 1922, chemist at BASF from 1884 to 1920) discovers a new blue dye in 1901. Indanthrene blue RS surpasses indigo in colorfastness and lightfastness. The high-quality vat dyes (water insoluble textile dyes) developed from it provide colorists with new applications for dyeing and printing textiles. The introduction of indigo and indanthrene gets a decisive boost from reducing and vatting agents “hydrosulfite conc. BASF” and Rongalit, which convert the dyes into a water-soluble form during the dyeing process.