The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THAT SYNTHETIC FOOD OF THE FUTURE
Chemists Control Affairs of Future
Synthetic Food Foresen by Speaker
Say Synthetic Foods May Replace Banquets
A Synthetic Age is Foreseen By Chemistry
Scientists at Wiliamstown Conference Promise That Substitutes Will Be Found for Everything
World Will Never Be Without Food
No Limits on Synthetic Products, Chemist Says
Williamstown, Massachusetts is a lovely little town in the middle of what passes for nowhere in New England, on the corner where Vermont and New York border Massachusetts, an hour north of Interstate 90. Right on Main St., however, is the draw that brings in people from all over the world, Williams College. Both the school and the town were funded - not founded - by Ephraim Williams, who was killed in 1755 during the French and Indian War and left a will giving the settlement his money as long as they named it after him and started a free school. We tend to think bureaucracy is a product of modern industrial times, but the town was not incorporated until 1765 and the free school not until 1791. Two years later, the free modifier was dropped and Williams College was born. They did not give Williams' estate the money back. It took quite a while before the school became a renowned institution of higher learning, ranked as "the No. 1 top college in America" by Forbes. The middle of nowhere meant something more in the 19th century. The school's President fled with a group of students closer to Boston to found traditional rival Amherst in 1821.
A century later, however, Williams had made something of itself and its nowhereness had become the Berkshires, a prime summer vacation spot for the elite in the stifling pre-air conditioning cities of New York and Boston. After World War I, Williamstown hosted the Institute of Politics, a weeks-long gathering of scholars, pedants, boffins, and doubledomes from the world's leading intellectual centers to give lectures, presentations, and public talks on weighty subjects. For the sixth conference the twin subjects of World Affairs and Chemistry were to merge, with talks not only on the world political situation but on how chemists saw the future of basic resources, including food.
Of course local papers like The North Adams Transcript jumped all over the Institute with coverage that started on the front page and bled into multiple column inches on the inside, as in that first headline above. Somewhat odder, The New York Times devoted almost as much space, running ten lengthy articles over the month, including nearly a full page that spawned the second headline. Other papers ran equally blazing headlines: the third one above comes from The Chicago Heights [IL] Star. Apparently, the Institute touched a raw nerve in an America for which the shortages and deprivations caused by the all-consuming military needs of World War I remained a vivid memory.
The syndicated article in the Star (August 27, 1926) gives a hint to what the average reader gleaned from the Conference.
The world will never want for food. There will always be enough to eat for everybody, and if we ever reach the unlikely situation when there will be too many mouths to feed because of the increase of population over the available food supply we can live on yeast food products, which the chemist stands ready to supply in limitless quantities.
"It is not too soon in the development of the synthetic food industry," [Dr. H. E. Barnard, president of the American institute of Baking, said] "to predict that if the need ever comes, the chemist will find a way to convert the light of sun and the nitrogen of the air into food for the human family. Already processes have been developed for the production of human food through the growth of the yeast plant which makes it possible to produce food at a very low cost and in enormous quantities."
These and similar news stories are where the trope of the masses being fed from giant vats of yeast come from.
The article in the Times (by Lewis Stark, August 22, 1926) is longer and sunnier from the first sentence.
The Synthetic age is at hand and the day is not far distant when the world will be freed from the tyranny of raw materials. ... the age of stone, of bronze, or iron were dismissed with scant mention.
How will they do this?
In their restless search for new sources of energy the scientist promise to harness the inexhaustible power of the atom to do the world's work. There is 10,000,000 times as much energy in a given weight of radium as in any other fuel that is known, said Dean Gerald L. Wendt of Pennsylvania State College, anticipating that it may not be very long before this type of energy may be used.
The chemists weren't sitting around waiting for this grand new energy source or to harvest sunlight, a mere matter of cost. They forged ahead in their labs every day.
Experiments in making synthetic food have, nevertheless, been carried out with some success. Edible fats made synthetically offer no difficulty. They can be made from petroleum, acetylene or natural gas. A sugar similar to dextrose was made not long ago by a Liverpool chemist from carbon dioxide and water. From the same combination, with the addition of nitrogen in the form of ammonia and nitrous acid, the chemist may produce compounds similar to proteins.
A careful reader might note that Stark balances out every sky-high future wonder with the lesser current reality, with synthetic food being a mere laboratory curiosity. The attitude is far more important than the messy details. Both the popular science publications and the science fiction of the day were filled with scientists, engineers, and inventors whipping up miracles in their well-stocked labs and that prodigious creativity could defeat any problems the world might throw at them. Stark summarizes this attitude in perhaps the greatest paean to science every compressed into a paragraph:
Be calm," say the chemist. "there is nothing to worry about in the forthcoming famine in the world's metal and mineral supply. We will find something just as good, and perhaps better. We are modest men, but we admit that we make the world go round. Trust us and be not deceived."
Yet deception was the order of the day. Readers took what they wanted to believe from sunny column A and left the cautious tones of Column B untouched. The press was a conscious helper. The subheading in the Transcript (August 11, 1926) that "Synthetic Foods May Replace Banquets" is a flat lie - at the very least an egregious misreading - on the part of the editor who wrote it. The chemists said exactly the opposite:
Taking up synthetic foods, [Dr. Rogers Adams, professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois] said that there was very little possibility of this form of food taking the place of the present "three squares." [Stark wrote that chemists "refuse to predict the time when mankind will swallow three pills a day as a substitute for three square meals."]
Banquets are never mentioned. Other scientists who warn against thinking that synthetic food will suddenly replace regular food are. And if that weren't enough the headline over an article by Florence Nelcamp in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (August 14, 1926) stomps the notion into the ground.
Chemists Can Never Make
Synthetic Food in Pill Form
Successful, Say Scientists
Synthetic foods look far off, and pills to eliminate one meal a day are very improbable. A man at rest requires sixteen hundred calories. To produce that amount of energy requires bulk of butter, etc. No compounds are found with a greater energy content that present fats. Food must have a certain amount of "roughage." ...
No machinery is so complicated and perfect as the human body. Three good meals cannot have a substitute in three pills which would revolutionize human machinery. There is no hope of synthetic food and there is no substitute for "roughage" for the human machinery.
For the rest of the month the battle raged.
New York Times, August 19, 1926
Chemists Prophesy Food From Sunlight
Politics Institute Lecturers Say
Synthetic Products Will
Largely Supply Man
New York Times, August 20, 1926
Derides Prediction of a Synthetic Era
Dr. Bain Tells the Institute of
Politics Chemist Grasp at
Believe the skeptics or believe those who promise the earth and the sky and unlimited wonderfulness?
That's never a contest in the public mind. The mere mention of three pills a day alongside the certainty that science can conquer nature led to an everlasting belief that someday, someway, somehow, those pills would materialize. SF writers obviously believed it. Food pills, tablets, and capsules are a staple in far future stories that appeared over the next decade, the far future a safe place to allow the slow evolution of food to pill plenty of time to happen.
And it led to a marvelous syndicated cartoon that appeared in papers in September. A cartoonist named Brown saw the world of three pills a day and satirized it under the heading "That Synthetic Food of the Future." As with any good cartoon, Brown encapsulates the story in the minimum of words. Yes, pun intended.