1900s Research

Valuable acids were escaping from Repauno's nitroglycerin plant and killing fish in the Delaware River. In March 1884 Lammot du Pont was seeking a better way to recover them at the Repauno plant, when the acids overheated and exploded, killing Lammot and four others. This effort at applied research took a terrible toll, but Lammot, a University of Pennsylvania-trained chemist, believed that the company's survival depended on research.Show more

E.I. du Pont, like his grandson, had also worked hard to improve explosives production through innovative machinery and methods and both men's efforts exemplified the 19th century pattern of individual initiative. But in the 20th century DuPont carried its research efforts much further, inventing and improving new products and furthering basic scientific knowledge in the process.


Since the early 1900s, DuPont's labs have conducted two types of research. "Applied research" focuses on developing new products or finding new uses for existing ones. "Basic research" pursues scientific questions not necessarily connected to any specific product or market, but on the faith that science will eventually open up new possibilities. Over the last century DuPont has always remained committed to research, although the emphasis given to each variant has continually shifted. After the younger du Ponts purchased the company in 1902 they established the Experimental Station near the old powder plant on the Brandywine and the Eastern Laboratory at Repauno. In their first decade of existence, these two laboratories established sharply contrasting records. The Experimental Station operated as an arm of DuPont's Development Department, explored a wide variety of problems related to DuPont's product lines, and failed to show a clear cut return on investment. Eastern Laboratory, on the other hand, focused solely on high explosives and succeeded in producing both product and process innovations.


World War I put the company's research capabilities to the test. When hostilities closed off access to the synthetic dyes and chemical expertise of German firms, America looked to DuPont to fill the gap. DuPont's response included the establishment of Jackson Laboratory at Deepwater, N.J., to investigate dyestuffs chemistry. Although the research and production efforts proved to be more difficult, costly and time-consuming than most had imagined, it was a qualified success. An important benefit of this early dyestuffs work was that it gave DuPont a grounding in organic chemistry. Equally important, it underscored the advantages of long-term, well-coordinated research strategies closely linked to factory-floor technologies. It was just such a system that scientists Charles Stine and Elmer K. Bolton hoped to expand at DuPont after the war.


During the 1910s, even as DuPont began to diversify its product lines, the company's research efforts became increasingly concentrated in the Chemical Department based at Wilmington's Experimental Station. But when the Executive Committee decentralized DuPont's management in 1921, they also bowed to pressure to decentralize much of the company's research so it could be tailored more closely to sales and manufacturing needs. Product departments such as the Explosives, Paint and Dyestuffs also specialized, setting up their own applied research facilities. This effort to apply scientific research directly to the development of specific products and production methods proved successful, yet the company continued to maintain its centralized basic research efforts in the Chemical Department. After Stine succeeded Reese in 1924, he strengthened the commitment to basic research, likening scientific research to the "adventuring argosy" of ancient navigators and explorers.


In contrast, Bolton, who took over from Stine as Director of the Chemical Department in 1930, pushed to make scientific research pay off and insisted that basic research be connected, at least loosely, to particular product lines. But Stine's faith in basic research was validated when, in 1930, the Chemical Department's Wallace Hume Carothers discovered not only neoprene synthetic rubber but also nylon, the first true synthetic fiber. Nylon's phenomenal success in both consumer and military markets helped to cement DuPont's post-World War II commitment to high-stakes, open-ended, basic research. In matters of broad policy, the company was staking its future on the calculated gamble of finding a pot of gold at the end of a research effort in the form of "new nylons."


In the years after World War II, DuPont, led by former chemical engineer Crawford Greenewalt, redoubled its efforts to plumb the field of organic chemistry for the next new nylon. In 1946 DuPont authorized the expenditure of $50 million for construction of new labs. The research arms of the separate product departments were beefed up to carry out basic, as well as applied, research. This move represented a compromise between Stine's belief in basic research and Bolton's more cost-conscious approach.


By 1960 the explosive growth that had been spurred on by DuPont's 1930s discoveries had slowed, convincing the Executive Committee to redouble its commitment to basic research. During the 1960s, the Experimental Station's Chemical Department, recently renamed the Central Research Department, mounted an open-ended effort to produce dramatic breakthroughs in building materials and electronics, as well as more traditional products. Few of these "New Ventures" paid off, however, due to escalating research costs, increased foreign competition, and a shift away from synthetics in clothing fashions. The economic downturn of the 1970s forced DuPont to retrench, and Executive Committee member Edwin A. Gee, who had directed the New Ventures program, called for cutbacks in basic research and for greater executive control over research spending by departments. The company began to rely more heavily on acquisition than research to augment and diversify its product bases, culminating in the purchase of Conoco Oil in 1981.


But even as DuPont was reaching beyond its traditional chemical markets, it returned yet again to its basic research values, opening an $85 million life sciences research complex in 1984. By the late 1990s DuPont had rediscovered itself as a "discovery company," emphasizing the bright possibilities rather than the hazards of science. It could proudly survey its ranks of researchers over the years and claim members in the National Academy of Sciences (George Lorimer and George Marshall) and the National Academy of Engineering (Uma Chowdhry and James Trainham). DuPont's Howard E. Simmons was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1992, and Charles Pederson was named a Nobel laureate in 1987. The company itself, along with individual researchers, Stephanie Kwolek and George Levitt, are National Medal of Technology winners, and DuPont has recognized numerous researchers with its own Lavoisier Medal for Technical Achievement.


Still, consumer anxiety in the 1990s over genetically modified crops, especially in European markets, was a sober reminder that different groups saw scientific progress in different ways. While the new company motto stressed “The miracles of science™,” DuPont's Chairman, Charles O. Holliday, also pointed out the company's need to address public worries over science, especially biogenetic research. DuPont's research mission, carried out in 75 laboratories around the world, still contains Bolton's conservative cautions as well as Stine's vision of an "adventuring argosy." And DuPont executives still calculate the risks of that mission as they strive for the right balance between the ever-shifting forces of the marketplace and the laboratory.


David A. Hounshell and John Kenly Smith, Jr., Science and Corporate Strategy: DuPont R&D, 1902-1980 (Cambridge, MA, 1988).

Norman B. Wilkinson, Lammot du Pont and the American Explosives Industry, 1850-1884 (University Press of Virginia, 1984).