Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by Akademie Verlag April 30, 2021

The Price of Nitrogen at the End of the Nineteenth Century

Der Stickstoffpreis am Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts
Arnaud Page and Laurent Herment


The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by the concomitant and entangled processes of the rise of agricultural chemistry and that of the fertiliser trade. Yet, while the two were undoubtedly related, the work of agricultural chemists was not necessarily characterized by the uniform and unequivocal promotion of fertilisers. This article looks at some of the complex ways in which chemists participated in the development of the fertiliser trade by studying how their work was used to ascribe a commercial price to a chemical element. It analyses the contested development of the idea that nitrogen, in particular, could be given a price, and shows how the rise of this quotation lay at the intersection of scientific and commercial considerations. More broadly, it argues that the importance of the new artificial fertilisers primarily lay not so much in yield increases as in inaugurating a new regime marked by a more comprehensive quantitative assessment of inputs and outputs, thereby playing a key role in the industrialisation of agriculture.

JEL Classification: N 10; N 13; N 54; Q 11; Q 13
Published Online: 2021-04-30
Published in Print: 2021-05-26

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