Friedrich Engelhorn (1821–1902)

The multinational chemical company BASF was founded by Friedrich Engelhorn in 1865 in what is now southern Germany. It became the largest chemicals company in the world.

Engelhorn was born at Mannheim in the state of Baden and at the age of 13 was apprenticed to a goldsmith. When he was in his mid-20s he opened his own goldsmith’s shop in Mannheim. In 1848 he saw opportunities in the development of the gas industry and established his own coal-gasworks to provide bottled gas. Shortly afterwards he won the contract for the city of Mannheim’s public gas provision and began a programme of street lighting.

The by-products of coal-gas were being explored by chemists in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1856, William Perkin in Britain had discovered the potential to make synthetic dyes from the coal-tar derivative aniline. These were used in textiles, paints and other products. Engelhorn created a plant that used the by-products of his gasworks to make the magenta dye Fuchsine from 1861. This led to other opportunities and with the Clemm brothers and other investors he set up BASF - Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik (in English, Baden Aniline and Soda Factory). The new company took land across the river Rhine from Mannheim at Ludwigshafen. Within two years it already employed 300 people.

In the next few years BASF set up production sites in France and Russia and opened an office in New York. Engelhorn recruited expert chemists who developed many new dyes, for which the company obtained patents. Germany led the world in chemical invention and production, especially for artificial dyes.

In 1885, Engelhorn left BASF owing to differences of opinion with the board of the company. He co-founded banks and companies in the fields of medicine, rubber, asbestos and alkalis. By the time that he died in 1902, BASF had sarted production of sodium bicarbonate and sulfuric acid and was continuing to grow internationally but dyes still represented 80% of its production.