Thursday, February 25, 2010

The River of Riches

That's the title of a book I'm reading now. (It's not new, but Tyler Cowen plugged his new book, which isn't yet at the library).  It's by Joel Mokyr, and the subtitle is : Technological Creativity and Economic Progress.  It's interesting, although a bit overwhelming in the number and variety of innovations and inventions he describes.  I'm only up to the late 19th century but I'd recommend it for anyone interested in how and when society changes the way it produces goods.

But on to agriculture. The main chemical fertilizers are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash/potassium.  As Mokyr observes, there's a long history of creating such fertilizers, but the "father of fertilizer" was Justus von Liebig, (1803-1872). I don't know if you count the making of potash by burning trees, as did my great great grandfather who settled in Ontario county and cleared his land.  The potash was shipped east for soap, glass, and fertilizer. Late in the 19th century mines were developed.   Nitrogen came from mining Chile's guano deposits.  Also in the mid 19th century super-phosphate was developed (making a more soluble form by treating phosphate rock with sulfuric acid.

[Revised the title so it fits the first sentence of the post.]

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