Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Chemical Reaction

Just how frightened should we be of chemical weapons, really? A 1929 essay tried to answer that question.

  • October 22, 2013

From “Facts and Fancies about Gas Warfare,” originally published in the February 1929 issue of Technology Review.

“Deadly gases purported to have sufficient toxicity to wipe out whole cities are periodically discovered, according to the public press, and it has grown to be the great indoor sport of a school of front-page chemists to draw horrific pictures of the use of gas in the next war. A ready-made example of this is a public statement from Hilton Ira Jones of Chicago, listed in the Directory of the American Chemical Society as Director of Scientific Research, The Redpath Bureau. He is quoted as asserting that the Government possesses knowledge of a new gas, believed by him to be cacodyl isocyanide, which is so overwhelmingly deadly that the Chemical Warfare Service of the Army has attempted to suppress discussion about it.

This story is part of our November/December 2013 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

At best Dr. Jones’s statement is an ill-informed outburst, adding to public fear and misunderstanding of lethal gases and their military uses. It is a generally accepted maxim among informed chemists and physiologists that no gas exists at the present time (nor will one be discovered) against which some means of protection and defense may not be devised. Professor James F. Norris, former President of the American Chemical Society, in talking recently of the development and use of war gases, stated that the gas referred to by Dr. Jones was tested exhaustively by the Germans during the World War but was not used by them. Dr. Norris, who was in charge of offense chemical research and war gas investigating for the United States Government during the war and is now a consultant for the Edgwood Arsenal, holds that the Allies were also familiar with the cacodyl group and found it unsatisfactory.

Moreover, as Dr. Norris points out, it is improbable that more deadly and toxic gases will be discovered; enough sufficiently lethal gases are already known. Asphyxiant gases such as phosgene and blistering gases such as mustard gas will certainly kill if they make contact in sufficient quantities. Instead, the probable trend of gas warfare studies will be toward finding more effective means of using these known gases against the increasing effectiveness of methods to combat them, and in the development of so-called neutralizing gases which incapacitate rather than kill. Anyhow, it is patently absurd to say that any gas could be used in quantities sufficient to annihilate whole populations and altruism of the sort imputed by Dr. Jones would be obviously incompatible with faithful adherence to the responsibilities the Republic has entrusted to its Chemical Warfare Service.”

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.