Film notes: The AD-X2 Controversy

In the 1940s, entrepreneur James Ritchie thought his additive AD-X2 worked like a charm to extend the life of batteries. He didn’t take it kindly when he was told to shut down his efforts.
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Film notes: The AD-X2 Controversy
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If you recognize a few people in the reenactment scenes of the documentary ‘The AD-X2 Controversy', you need not be surprised.

You will see numerous actors in the film that captures the scientific and chemical drama around this battery additive with interviews and re-enactments. Only three of the actors in the film are professionals. All the others are NIST staffers. The director, José Ricardo García, is on the NIST staff, as is producer Leon Geršković.

The film about a historic controversy in battery design was produced by the US  National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2023. It is set in the 1940s and 1950s when NIST was still called the National Bureau of Standards. Congress renamed the bureau NIST in 1988. A federal agency as a film producer? Indeed, it is. 

A postcard for the film The AD-X2 Controversy

(NIST) 

The plot of the film is how a packet of salt and the activities of a determined entrepreneur lead to a tangle of science, politics and business. The entrepreneur and inventor is pitted against a government agency and controversy swirls about bias at the agency.

You can watch ‘The AD-X2 Controversy’ on YouTube or right here.

NIST has a site with the film and much documentation related to the film, too. 

And here is a Behind the scenes video also with some comments by the director. And there's a Q&A with him here

A picture that advertises the film The AD-X2 Controversy

This film is about a commercial battery additive and about how physicist Dr. Allen Astin, director of the National Bureau of Standards faced a controversy about it. At one point, he was relieved of his post. (NIST)

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A delicate but vibrant musical score and charming re-enactments bring the battery design controversy to life. A few women populate the film, such as in lab scenes and as members of the press, but it is mainly a film with and about white men, which is likely an apt representation of the times.

A scene of the test of the battery additive AD-X2 in the the film The AD-X2 Controversy

(NIST) 

García and his team rummaged through the federal agency’s basements, storage rooms and dug about in the backs of cupboards and drawers to find older lab equipment and office supplies to set the scenes.

Wardrobe, hair style and makeup were also set in the style of the day. The story takes place in the 1940s and 1950s. The scenes were storyboarded.

Storyboard from the film The AD-X2 Controversy

A storyboard for the film: AD-X2: Behind the Scenes.  (Still from the film: The AD-X2 Controversy : Behind the Scenes. NIST)

The AD-X2 producers paid close attention to make the look true to the 1940s and 1950s.

The producers of 'The AD-X2 Controversy' paid close attention to the look of the 1940s and 1950s.  (Still from the film: The AD-X2 Controversy: Behind the Scenes. NIST) 

The main character of 'The AD-X2 Controversy' is Jess Ritchie, played by Adam Cooley. Ritchie is a self-made man with an idea. As historian Dr. Nelson Kellogg recounts in the film, Ritchie was listed in the Oakland phone book as a bulldozer operator and a psychologist specializing in alcoholism. But Ritchie had an idea about a battery additive and saw an opportunity.

Ritchie brought the idea to a company that already sold a battery additive called Protecto Charge, which supposedly extended the life of batteries. Ritchie bought the company, renamed it to Pioneers, Inc. and along with physical chemist Dr. Merle Randall, worked there on a chemical mixture that they internally showed extended the life of batteries. When he and Randall tested it, the results were purportedly, as they say in the film, “sensational.”

This, like much in the film, is dialog is drawn from historic documents and interviews. Ritchie had been tinkering with one blend of chemicals and apparently forgot a batch for a few days. When they tested it, a ‘eureka’ moment ensued.

In actuality, the Pioneers AD-X2 blend was never patented and kept under wraps as a trade secret. It was likely a mixture of sodium and magnesium sulfate, which supposedly held off the process of sulfation, and thus corrosion, in lead-acid batteries. This might extend battery life. 

Randall, along with Ritchie and his wife, set up the company to switch from selling the previous battery additive to selling this new battery additive they named AD-X2. It came on the market in 1947.

In this post-World War II time, the economy needed to grow. Cars and trucks were hitting the road in a big way to fuel that growth. These vehicles all needed lead-acid batteries but lead was in short supply and expensive.

AD-X2 purported to prolong battery life. The National Bureau of Standards, the name of NIST at the time, didn't agree the compound was any kind of sensation. The National Bureau of Standards had determined,  that such additives were not beneficial to battery life. 

Pioneers was asked to shut down production. 

Ritchie protested. In 1950, Newsweek published an article that was favorable about AD-X2 and 8,000 requests for samples flooded the company.

A re-enacted scene from the film The AD-X2 Controversy. The company is flooded with requests for its battery additive.

A scene from the film The AD-X2 Controversy when requests flooded the company about the additive that supposedly extended the life of batteries. (NIST)

A month later came another blow to the company and the inventors. The Federal Trade Commission and the US Post Office sent Ritchie a ‘cease and desist’ order. That was going to mark the end for AD-X2.

But Ritchie fought Washington on this decision. He requested a “complete investigation of prejudice” at the National Bureau of Standards and demanded a fair test of AD-X2.

Ritchie resolved to run independent tests in the Weber lab at MIT. That test indicated AD-X2 might have some merit after all. It’s a view chemist Dr. Keith Laidler at Catholic University supported. Laidler, as it turns out, was also a paid consultant for Ritchie.

Tests took place at National Bureau of Standards and they were overseen by Dr. Allen Astin, a physicist, who had joined the bureau in 1930 and rose to become director in 1951. According to the tests, the battery additive had no effect. Ritchie disagreed.

Astin had just become director of the agency and basically inherited the controversy that ensued. Astin, who had a reserved manner, is played in the re-enactments by Evan Casey. The battery additive AD-X2 put Astin’s career and the reputation of the bureau on the line.

The film delves into the politico-technical disagreement between the National Bureau of Standards, the US Department of Commerce and Pioneers. The re-enactments show the personal back and forth in well-produced ways, with animation to show some records and with reenacted dialog.

The team may have lacked the budget of a series like Mad Men, which starts out in the advertising world of the 1950s, but the NIST team found modest ways to convincingly produce the look of the times.

The political climate in which the film takes place was shaped by the Eisenhower Administration’s policies that aimed to cut back on regulation and fortify entrepreneurs. Ritchie thus entered the public realm with “the perfect story that matched their idea,” says historian Dr. Nelson Kellogg in the film. The Department of Commerce could then enter the fray as a “hero of the common man.”

At the US Senate Small Business Committee Hearings, the blustering Secretary of the US Department of Commerce Sinclair Weeks, played by Joel Snyder, blasts the National Bureau of Standards test results. His dialog and much else in the film were drawn from records such as committee hearing transcripts.

Astin held against the Department of Commerce. The conditions under which other measurements had made were invalid, because, for instance, no controls had been used.

Allen Astin passed away in 1984. His sons John and Alexander are in the film and talk about their father and the controversy.

The Senate Small Business Committee concluded the government had wrongly accused Ritchie of false advertising and the company was allowed once again to advertise and sell AD-X2. Fraud charges against Ritchie were dropped. Next, the US Secretary of Commerce fired Allen Astin.

But 400 scientists at the National Bureau of Standards threatened to leave the bureau if the director's dismissal was upheld.

I won’t spoil all that happens next. But eventually, after considerable controversy, Astin was reinstated as director of the National Bureau of Standards.

Here’s some sage advice about the interaction between science and commercial activities from Alexander Astin who says in the film: “To compromise science because of the marketplace is just suicidal.” 

A scene from the film The AD-X2-Controversy showing Evan Cooley playing Jess Ritchie working in the lab.

Scene from the film 'The AD-X2 Controversy' about entrepreneur Jess Ritchie, played by Adam Cooley' who developed a battery additive that purported to extend battery life. (NIST) 

Some historic documentation:

These are excerpts of a statement by US Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks to the Select Committee of Small Business of the US Senate on March 31, 1953. The full statement can be found here on the NIST site

Excerpt of Statement by Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks Statement before the Select Committee on Small Business, U.S. Senate, March 31, 1953

These are excerpts of a statement by Dr. Allen Astin, director of the National Bureau of Standards before the Select Committee on Small Business, US. Senate June 23, 1953. The full document is here

Excerpt of Dr. Astin's Statement

And here is historian Dr. Nelson Kellogg's dissertation "Standardizing the Bureau: The Battery Additive Controversy and the Reorganization of the National Bureau of Standards". 

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,  Part 5

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Inorganic Chemistry
Physical Sciences > Chemistry > Inorganic Chemistry
Batteries
Physical Sciences > Materials Science > Materials for Energy and Catalysis > Batteries
Science Policy
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Science and Technology Studies > Science, Technology and Society > Science Policy
History of Science
Humanities and Social Sciences > History > History of Science