1880 Engineering & Construction

In the 1880s, "General" Henry du Pont proudly told an applicant for an engineering position that "we build our own machinery, draw our own plans, make our own patterns and have never employed anyone to design or construct our mills and machinery, dams or races, roads or anything else." From the very first, DuPont built its own plants and facilities. Today, the company remains steeped in an innovative "engineering culture," with management taking an active interest in promoting the safest, most efficient design and construction.Show more



During the 19th century, many of the du Pont family were trained engineering graduates. The original powder mills along the Brandywine Valley were among the first examples of specialized DuPont engineering, built by E.I. du Pont along French designs new to America. With walls three feet thick on three sides, but only a thin roof and the fourth side open to the stream, any blast was channeled upwards and over the water. The wide spacing of units also minimized the risk of further explosions. The du Ponts continued to encourage such innovation in manufacturing designs throughout the 19th century and built on an increasingly ambitious scale, culminating in the world's largest black powder plant, built in Mooar, Iowa, in 1890.

 

During the first century, each DuPont department was responsible for the construction of its own plants. But as DuPont expanded and diversified its operations, the demands upon engineers increased dramatically, and in 1902 the company began specializing, forming a separate Engineering Department. The new department, with an initial staff of six, was based in Wilmington and built such local landmarks as the DuPont Theatre, formerly The Playhouse Theatre, and the Hotel du Pont.

 

The acquisition of the Eastern Dynamite Company and Manufacturers' Contracting Company in 1904 and 1905 brought DuPont new engineers trained in high explosives and black powder facilities design. In 1911, rather than continue to divide talent among divisions, DuPont merged all of its engineering groups into the Engineering Department. Led by Chief Engineer Colonel William Ramsay, the new department established an unrivaled reputation for technical expertise and safe, efficient design and construction of explosive plants. When the courts broke up DuPont's powder operations in 1912, the Engineering Department was considered so vital to the success of all the component companies that the government ordered DuPont to offer the newly formed companies, Atlas and Hercules Powder, access to it for five years.

 

As World War I broke out in Europe, DuPont engineers were faced with coordinating a massive construction program to boost munitions supplies for the Allies. U.S. entry into the war placed even greater demands on plant capacity, and DuPont formed an engineering subsidiary to work solely on government projects. In 1917 the U.S. government asked DuPont to design and build a facility capable of producing 900,000 pounds of military smokeless powder daily. The resulting Old Hickory site was the largest construction project of its time. DuPont engineers turned farmland into a city housing 30,000 people and the largest explosives plant in the world. The first unit went into production at Old Hickory 112 days ahead of schedule and the U.S. government praised DuPont for its "remarkable achievement."

 

Diversification into chemical production after World War I brought new challenges. The Engineering Department was responsible for designing and building everything from power plants to sophisticated photo laboratories to entire company towns. By 1918 work was already underway on the largest chemical plant in the world--the dye works at Deepwater, N.J. To keep abreast of technological advances, DuPont engineers even traveled to Europe to study new materials and methods. Then, in the 1920s, as scientists developed new products such as moisture-proof cellophane, DuPont engineers helped turn them into commercial successes by devising pioneering, large-scale manufacturing machinery and techniques.

 

While DuPont relied on its Engineering Department, competitors increasingly turned to outside contractors. Management considered this approach, but determined that a firm of DuPont's size and complexity could not do without its own Engineering Department. They argued that DuPont engineers had the benefit of specialized industry knowledge and could more easily collaborate with operating and research units. Economies of scale, it was also believed, saved the firm time and money. Chief Engineer Granville Read later said that "engineering is the art of doing well with one dollar that which any bungler can do with two after a fashion." During the 1920s the Engineering Department was easily among the nation's largest national construction firms and even operated as a contractor until 1928, completing $60 million worth of construction and design for General Motors alone.

 

Staffing and construction suffered during the early Depression, but the Engineering Department was revitalized in the late 1930s and built a succession of new plants that included the nylon production plant built at Seaford, Del., in 1939. Seaford was a triumph in engineering with a fully automated, 24-hour production process. This technological edge was crucial during World War II, when DuPont was called upon to build 54 government plants. The company quickly rebuilt its powder and explosives capacity and further expanded vital chemical production. Although the number of Engineering Department employees increased fivefold from 1939 to 1940, DuPont still relied on subcontractors to meet demand. The company made the best of its engineering force, The Washington Post observed, by "leap frogging steam-shovel men, carpenters, masons and plumbers from one site to another."

 

Although The Post called this an "epic performance," DuPont's greatest wartime engineering achievement was kept out of the papers: construction and operation of the world’s first large-scale nuclear production facility, the Hanford Engineering Works in Washington, which eclipsed even Old Hickory in size. The U.S. government cited DuPont's engineering prowess in requesting the company to undertake the job, and despite the complexities of the task and constraints of secrecy, the engineers built a plant that was ready a year ahead of schedule and proved near flawless in operation. In 1950 the government asked DuPont's assistance to build an even larger nuclear complex, the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina.

 

Even as they met government needs, however, DuPont engineers were also building for the postwar commercial market. In an effort to retain control of the rapidly expanding operations, the Engineering Department was reorganized into five divisions: design, construction, engineering service, development engineering and control. This system enabled the Engineering Department to offer complete services to all the DuPont manufacturing departments and oversee the construction of $1 billion worth of new plants between 1945 and 1953. Still, the size and diversity of the workload forced DuPont to turn increasingly to subcontractors for actual construction while retaining control over design and research work.

 

By the 1960s, the Engineering Department had helped design and build plants from the United Kingdom to Argentina. Financial retrenchment in the 1970s and 1980s reduced new plant investment, but DuPont engineers continued to update plants to keep pace with technological advances. Construction boomed in the 1990s; a host of new plants were built worldwide and DuPont Engineering continues to design and oversee the construction of state-of-the-art plants. DuPont Engineering remains in demand as a consultant on a wide range of engineering services and technology. When the Board of Directors looked to improve DuPont's environmental record in 1992, it turned to the Engineering Department, which devised the Corporate Environmental Plan. This has led to annual reductions of 300 million pounds of waste and a savings of $100 million in capital expenditures and operational costs. DuPont continues to be, in the words of former President and CEO Chad Holliday, "good at solving big problems" for consumers. But it is DuPont Engineering that solves the big problems that enables the company to do so.

 

B.P. Foster, "A History of the Engineering Department of E. I. du Pont de Nemours" (Undated Mss.).
"Engineering & Construction" DuPont Magazine (April-May 1944).

J.P. Chamberlain, "The Du Pont Construction Force: Engineering Tomorrow's World," Engineering News-Record (August 6, 1953).