Ephedra, the buzzy essence of the Ma Huang bush, was a Chinese stimulant for 5 milennia before being chemically isolated in 1881 by Nagai Nagayashi in Japan, while amphetamine, a related synthetic compound, was created the same year in Berlin. Cocaine was rampant in ‘medicines’ of the day, so the new stimulants seemed redundant, and they lay quietly in a drawer for 40 years. The great wave of early 20th Century chemical bounty hunters boosted amphetamine’s fortunes, as drug giants like Boroughs (family of William S.) and Smith, Kline and French (SKF) sidled away from alcohol, heroin, or cocaine-rich Patent concoctions (72% of the drug market in 1910), to more ‘scientific’ remedies.  Freelance pharmaceutical researchers (test-tube cowboys) were cut in on industry profits of new ‘cures’, so got busy adding molecules to the skeletons of naturally effective compounds, self-testing for results, and hawking new drugs to the public, with zero oversight.

Ephedrine was first synthesized in 1881 by Nagai Nagayashi in Japan. In 1893 Nagai using ephedrine to synthesize amphetamine. In 1919 a protégé of Nagai – Akira Ogata – synthesized crystal methamphetamine. [Wikipedia]
Gordon Alles was amphetamine’s shepherd, spending remarkably focused years tinkering with the adrenaline molecule, injecting himself and keeping dry notes while high on his creations – amphetamine, MDA, and MDMA (yes, he discovered Ecstasy).  His 1927 results for amphetamine included ‘dry nasal passages, bronchial relaxation’, reason enough for SKF to manufacture asthma inhalers using ‘Benzedrine’ strips in 1933, which clever folks like Jean Paul Sartre soaked in their coffee, each 160mg strip equaling 32 amphetamine tablets – a serious morning kick.  Soon SKF were touting other uses – diet aids, wakey tabs, attention focusers – distributing one million pills/day by 1940 for asthma; the same number for dieting.

Gordon Alles, the man who popularized amphetamines, making them their production the enormous business it remains today. [Wikipedia]
The international teeth-gritting before WW2 wasn’t diplomatic, but pharmacological, with rapid dissemination of amphetamines (in the case of Britain and the US) or methedrine tabs (Germany and Japan) to swelling armies for Modern warfare.  The Blitzkreig was fuelled by speed-laced ‘choko’ for air and tank crews, but with reports of abuse, paranoia, aggression, friendly fire deaths, and serious errors in judgement (complaints which echo in today’s military), the Germans cut back by 1941, although Hitler received 8 daily shots of meth for three years, until he shot himself. [2.]
Pass the salt, Adolf. Germany passed out methamphetamine as literal candy to fuel the Blitz. [Wikipedia]
On testing, no army found an advantage of speed over caffeine in any area save one – morale. 10mg snapped men to attention, made them order-friendly, and more willing to kill; the military had discovered the perfect soldier drug. Controversy raged within Axis and Allied commands, but the mood-altering effects of speed won over its dark side, and ‘amphetamines won the Battle of Britain’. 72 Million pills swirled in the bloodstream of the RAF, and as many as 500 Million pills in the US military.  The Japanese were up-front about speed, naming it Senryoku zoko zai (‘drug to inspire the fighting spirits’), and kamikaze pilots were cranked out of their hachimaki’d skulls, before smashing same into battleship steel plating.

‘Drug to inspire the fighting spirit’: amphetamine was a perfect military tool, until it wasn’t. It’s still handed out in strips in the US military for missions… [Wikipedia]
Postwar Japan surveyed nuclear devastation, then distributed, free, 20 million ampules of meth to crank up an ‘economic miracle’, with thousands of psychotic casualties an acceptable cost.  Elsewhere, writers, truckers, pilots, soldiers, bikers – any group needing concentrated attention – had a percentage of hyped-up devotees. Former airmen, above all in SoCal, fought the drudge of citizen life with new thrills – wingless flight, an escape from sprawling suburban boredom on cheap surplus motorcycles; their bike clubs became gangs with militaristic hierarchy, and bikers with leftover military habits loved speed.  ‘The Wild One’ missed this chemical plot point in ‘53, but ten years later Kenneth Anger’s ‘Scorpio Rising’ flourished a moto-hero sniffing ‘salt’ from a tabletop shaker as prelude to a Satanic binge…a point echo’d in 1980 when LeVille in Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Loveless’ divvies salt on a diner’s formica before white-knuckle plunging his stiletto in a vinyl banquette, as Willem Dafoe warns ‘Go easy on the vitamins’; always good advice.

Advertising amphetamines: diet pills have been big business since the 1930s. [Private Collection]
Curiously, the RAF’s pill-mountain didn’t linger with English bikers; they preferred tea. Joan Vollmer (later shot by William Burroughs in Mexico) introduced the Beats to Benzedrine inhalers, and Jack Kerouak hand-filled a 120-foot roll of paper during a week-long wakey binge, the ‘Road’ he was on dusted with amphetamine salts1. The Modernists, children of the Beats,  ‘kept sharp’ with ‘purple hearts’, slick Italian tailoring and chic buzzing scooters, ‘into it not out of it’.  Mods hated drunken discos and retro (already!) Rockers for beery sloppiness, preferring animated conversation, a fine edge of style, and dancing to the latest soul discs. Meanwhile in Vietnam, US troops popped fistfuls of Dexedrine, 4 times as much as WW2 – with drug hospitalizations four times those for war wounds. As Soviet missiles parked in Cuba, JFK (and Jackie too!) took shots of vita-meth cocktails from ‘Dr.Feelgood’ on the run-up to total nuclear annihilation. Massacres of civilians at My Lai, as in Iraq and Afghanistan today, are sometimes blamed on amphetamine psychosis, but the perfect military drug soldiers on.

Speed is for kids! And if you have college-age children, you know how popular Adderall remains for students without prescriptions… [New York Times]
Drug companies found another rich target while raking in military billions during the 1960s; children.  Amphetamine compounds like Ritalin and Adderal are now the most prescribed ‘medications’ in the US, curing nothing but keeping kids focused. Scary toothless meth-heads are modern bogeymen, lurking under beds as worst-case parent nightmares, but we love popping candy-colored uppers to our little darlings daily, making speed the biggest blockbuster drug in history.

Bikers and speed: it’s a long story. Many suggest it was former airmen returning to civilian life and taking up motorcycling for thrills that permanently imbued biker culture with a taste for speed. There’s certainly a story to be told about the rise of organized crime in ‘1%’ clubs after amphetamines were made Schedule 2 drugs in 1970, and thus available only by prescription (to children, mostly). [Telegraph and Argus]
Our relationship with the fruits of the Ma Huang tree is deeply complex, so it’s fitting the Chinese supply our poetic muse; the syllables ‘am phe ta min’ can be translated as ‘Is this not his fate?’

Pass the salt, Scorpio. A scene from Kenneth Anger’s amazing ‘Scorpio Rising’: Scorpio’s powder stash is hiden in a salt shaker. [Kenneth Anger]
[This essay was originally published in Men’s File magazine in 2012.]

Curious on the subject?  Here’s some essential Reading:

  1. On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine by Nicolas Rasmussen (an excellent overview)
  2. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler (a fascinating and controversial account)
Pass the salt, Davis. ‘Sportster Debbie’ (novelist Tina L’Hotsky) and Davis (rockabilly legend Robert Gordon) at a diner, gritting their teeth through breakfast in Florida in a scene from ‘The Loveless’ (1981) by two-time Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. [Screen shot from the film]


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


Related Posts

100 Years Ago: Harley-Davidson Military Testing in 1918

In 1918, Harley-Davidson motorcycles…

‘The Loveless’: Way Beyond Torn Up

It was Kathryn Bigelow's first film,…

Legend of the Motorcycle Attire

It was an event that changed the…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter