When does procuring ingredients for basic medicine make for a scandalous plot? When it can also be turned into an explosive. The Great Phenol plot is one of the biggest conspiracies that no one remembers.
It's a shame that so few people remember the Great Phenol Plot. Not only was it a tale of scientific scandal, it humiliated Thomas Edison. (As far as I can tell, most modern io9ers are firmly on Team Tesla when it comes to the historical grudge match of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.) And it all comes from that innocent white pill that sits in everyone's medicine cabinet - aspirin.
The Fight Over Phenol
Aspirin was in short supply in Germany during World War I. Bayer, it's producer, was an international company with headquarters in Germany, one of its major processing plants in America, and its supplier of a chemical called phenol in the United Kingdom. Phenol is a white, salt-like compound that can make the salicylic acid in aspirin. The UK produced it, the US bought it, and the Bayer Corporation in Germany controlled and managed the production. When war broke out, the UK was not inclined to sell phenol to the US branch of a German company. Even if it had wanted to sell, there wasn't enough to go around. Phenol wasn't just a potential pain reducer.
Phenol could be also be changed into trinitophenol, or picric acid. Picric acid is used in TNT, and plenty of other kinds of explosives. Even today, chemistry classes and amateur pyromaniacs can extract picric acid from aspirin to make explosions. Since war generally uses a lot of explosives, the availability of phenol went down and the price went up. Meanwhile, aspirin availability was running low.
Over in America, which was technically neutral but drifting more towards the British side every day, Thomas Edison found that, without phenol, he was running low on materials to make phonograph disks. He solved the problem by manufacturing his own.
Front Companies and Back Room Deals
Soon he found other buyers, including a former Bayer employee turned agent for the German Interior Ministry, Hugo Schweitzer. Bayer needed to keep running, and Germany needed explosives, and so Schweitzer set up a front corporation that bought all the extra phenol Edison could make. At his company's peak, Edison was making tons every day.
The exact workings of this arrangement were not officially illegal. America's official neutrality was sometimes tough to maintain, and sometimes put aside entirely, but there was no reason why Edison couldn't sell to anyone he chose. There were people in America who were pro-German. He could have publicly sold phenol to a nation with a fair amount of public support in a war that America officially had no intention of joining. The cover up was the worst possible way to go about it. The fact that it was done so underhandedly, and that it was secretly arranged by the German government instead of a German company, is what made it look bad when it came out.
And it did come out. One of the conspirators left his briefcase on a train, and American Secret Service agents snatched it. They leaked the story to a newspaper and it became front page news. Was it a plot to steal necessary ingredients away from the US military and US industry? Was the phenol going to make medicine or explosives? What other fake businesses were buying up much-needed medical and military supplies for Germany? The public uproar had staying power.
It was a publicity hit for Germany, for Bayer, and for Edison. The deal was brought out into the light, and Edison openly sold phenol for a short while. Before long public sentiment turned against it so strongly that Edison ended the deal. He sent the rest of the excess phenol to the US army. It would be another year and a half before America officially joined the war. It's doubtful that the Great Phenol Plot, as it was called, sped America's involvement, but it certainly didn't delay it.