About the beginnings of “chemicals” in Switzerland
scienceindustries celebrated its 140th anniversary as the trade association of the Chemistry Pharma Life Sciences industries on 12 March 2022. However, the sector itself has been active in Switzerland for around 100 years longer.
The first large-scale extraction of basic chemicals was carried out in the second half of the 18th century. The parallel development of plant and apparatus construction and the fact that transporting acids in glass bottles in particular was cumbersome and expensive, led to the construction of smaller production plants closer to consumers.
Chemistry as an auxiliary to the textile industry
The modern chemical industry in Switzerland has its origins in the second half of the 19th century – in the composition of natural dyes and the production of artificial dyes. It is known that from 1778 to 1854 in Winterthur, Johann Heinrich Ziegler and Johann Sebastian Clais produced sulphuric acid and later other acids, chlorine lime and copper sulphate, mainly for use in the textile industry. The aim was to reduce dependency on natural dyes that aren't always readily available.
French patent law at the time – which granted patent protection only to products, but not to processes – encouraged many French chemists to emigrate to England, Germany and Switzerland. Basel and Geneva in particular, as border cities located along important river transport routes, offered the best conditions for the establishment of chemical production plants. As a result, the increasing demand for energy for production, the delivery of raw materials and the removal of end products could be met particularly well.
Focus on specialty chemicals
The second half of the 19th century was marked by numerous foundations, takeovers and mergers, but also by difficult times: in the 1870s, the leading minds understood that the Swiss chemical industry had to find its own path in order to stand out from its international competitors, especially Germany. They found their way into specialities and niche products.
Initially, these were almost exclusively special, high-quality dyes based on tar, later followed by the manufacture of basic chemicals such as acetylene, ammonia and prussic acid, which in turn opened up new methods of composition and paved the way for an emerging production of pharmaceutical active ingredients. Another decisive factor in this development was the fact that, in contrast to mass production, this high-quality chemistry required a high standard of research, well-trained employees and increasingly complex production facilities.
They also formed a joint interest group. scienceindustries, then known as the Swiss Society of Chemical Industry (SGCI), was founded in 1882. The increase in the membership of scienceindustries is impressive and illustrates the steadily increasing relevance of our industries to the economy as a whole: only 41 companies took part in the founding meeting in 1882, in 1914 there were already 134 members, and in 1957, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary, there were 188.
> Read the editorial and prelude to the series of articles by our director Stephan Mumenthaler on the anniversary of scienceindustries Chemistry Pharma Life Sciences.
> Find out more about the products of the Chemistry Pharma Life Sciences industries and their impact on our quality of life in the next article.
> Find out more about the growth rates and the significant share of overall economic performance.