THE CALCO CHEMICAL COMPANY, AMERICAN CYANAMID, by Anthony S. Travis
New Jersey’s Calco Chemical Company was founded in 1915 at a site close to the town of Bound Brook, almost adjacent to the Raritan River, to manufacture
coal-tar intermediates required to make synthetic dyestuffs. After 1918, Calco also successfully embarked on the manufacture of synthetic dyestuffs by
processes that were far more complex than hitherto used in American chemical industry. With the help of technical experts such as Victor L. King, Calco
introduced process improvements based on its own innovations. Inventive activity was enhanced from 1927 with the creation of a research department,
one of the earliest in the U.S. chemical industry.
In 1929, confronting difficult trading conditions, Calco was acquired by the American Cyanamid Company, and became the dye-making and organic
chemicals hub of that corporation. Subsequently Calco diversified into sulfa, or “wonder,” drugs, based on its dye intermediates, and amino resins. It was
the American first mover, as inventor and innovator, in these areas, both of which had important military applications during World War II. Calco became the
largest American manufacturer of sulfa drugs, used in animal health products long after they had been displaced by penicillin. Calco’s amino resins (1929)
and melamine (1939) became the basis of the first colored household molded plastic goods and the ubiquitous Formica products. The Bound Brook facility
was the international leader in instrumental analysis and color matching of dyes, and, mainly through Edwin I. Stearns, in the 1930s contributed to the first
phase of the instrumental revolution. After 1945, American Cyanamid’s Calco Chemical Division was a leader in vat dyestuffs, fluorescent whitening agents,
polyurethane and acrylic polymers, and the invention of herbicides.
From 1958 to 1975, the Bound Brook facility operated one of the most successful stations of the M.I.T. School of Chemical Engineering Practice. Graduate
students gained extensive hands-on experience in improvements in manufacturing plant and a wide range of site-specific developments. During this
period, the facility embarked on the design and construction of continuous, automated process equipment, mainly with the aim of replacing certain batch
processes. The outcomes were not always as intended, partly due to aggressive programs that made inadequate allowances for changes in the chemistry.
During much of the twentieth century, the chemical industry was the largest manufacturing sector in the United States, and was held in the highest esteem.
After 1960, however, it was faced with the problem of severe decline in invention and innovation. This had a particularly adverse impact on the affairs of
Bound Brook, which is here analyzed in considerable depth. Nevertheless, despite the running down of the facility from the end of the 1970s, American
Cyanamid’s subsequent diversification into the life sciences was firmly grounded in its heritage of research and development at Calco.
Chemical manufacture involves not only production of useful goods but also of coproducts and by-products for which storage and disposal are
problematic. Sometimes, as in the case of the manufacture of aniline, Bound Brook developed new processes that overcame the problem of waste
disposal. Where this was not possible, the Raritan River was used as a sink for liquid waste. Following expansion in the early 1930s, the facility confronted
considerable pressures from state and local health agencies concerned with the deterioration of the condition of the river arising from the often colored
and poorly degradable releases. For Calco, the main focus was on minimizing releases to the Raritan River. These pressures and regulations (of which
those imposed by the New Jersey Department of Health were among the most stringent) stimulated inventions and innovations in the treatment of liquid
waste, particularly with the opening: in 1940 of extensive waste treatment facilities, in 1957 of the largest biological waste-treatment system in New Jersey,
and in 1977 of the world’s largest continuous activated-carbon wastewater treatment plant.
|Summary of the Book by Anthony S. Travis, Dyes Made in America 1915-1980: The Calco Chemical
Company, American Cyanamid and the Raritan River (Jeremy Mills Publishing), 2004.
|Calco Chemical Company, 1925. Click to Enlarge.