DuPont's explosive story of innovation

The company's history includes inventions that have become global household names.

(FILES)Construction workers attach a Tyvek vapor barrier to the exterior of an apartment building under construction in this October 6, 2009 file photo, in Centreville, Virginia. Sales of US existing homes fell more than expected in December, by nearly 17 percent, following a three-month surge driven by a government tax credit, an industry organization said January 25, 2010. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) said sales fell 16.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.45 million units, from 6.54 million in November. AFP PHOTO / Paul J. Richards *** Local Caption ***  705428-01-08.jpg
Powered by automated translation

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE // At the height of America's coal-powered industrial age, DuPont was a large US industrial enterprise run entirely on renewable energy. The reason? Back in the 19th century, the profits that fuelled what was then a family-owned business came from making gunpowder.

The mills where DuPont gunpowder was mixed and refined from charcoal and the imported minerals potassium nitrate and sulphur, and the magazines that stored the powder, had to be kept strictly away from flames and sparks. At DuPont's water-powered mill complex at Hagley, on the Brandywine River in the US state of Delaware, the safety rules were correspondingly strict. "All kind of play or disorderly fun is prohibited", read a notice that the company's French immigrant founder EI du Pont de Nemours posted on New Year's Day, 1811. He banned alcohol from the site in 1818 after an explosion killed 40 people and injured his wife Sophie. The accident was attributed to a DuPont foreman's drinking.

Mill workers had to wear boots held together with wooden pegs instead of iron nails, which could strike sparks from the region's hard granite bedrock. Even the cart-horses wore leather coverings over their metal shoes. Mechanical and material innovations to keep the workplace as safe as possible were numerous. A narrow-gauge railway connecting the various buildings at the plant site not only ran on hydropower but also on meticulously crafted wooden tracks. The cooling fans in the machine-repair workshop had blades of lacquered leather.

The oil-lamps providing light for the machinists were carefully encased in glass and burned whale oil instead of the petroleum oil that had recently been discovered in the neighbouring state of Pennsylvania. The poorly refined petroleum product was avoided due to its tendency to spit when burnt. "EI preferred to hire inexperienced workers and train them in the rules and procedures that he knew would produce superior powder and minimise the risks of injury and death," wrote Adrian Kinnane in his 2002 bookDuPont: From the Banks of the Brandywine to Miracles of Science.

Training alone, however, did not solve the problem of retaining skilled employees in an inherently dangerous work environment. That led to innovations in employee relations and contracts. In 1811, DuPont was one of the first companies to introduce overtime pay and higher wages for night shifts. It also offered a savings plan for workers and provided pensions for widows and orphans. That helped assure workers their families were secure, encouraging them to stay in their jobs.

Even so, there were periodic explosions at the expanding DuPont facilities that eventually claimed the lives of several of the founder's family. One was EI's grandson Lammot, who had pioneered US production of high explosives, including dynamite, based on new nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose compounds. Despite such setbacks, by the late 19th century DuPont had become the leading US manufacturer of not only the older "black powder" but also the new "smokeless gunpowder", which incorporated the highly explosive nitrocellulose compounds.

It was that business which, at the end of the First World War, enabled DuPont to diversify into the science-based speciality chemicals businesses for which it is better known today. Its products expanded to include paint pigments and dyes, the chemistry of which is closely linked to that of nitrocellulose. Eventually, the company's growing army of organic chemists and chemical engineers developed novel fibres such as nylon and processes for producing them on an industrial scale.

DuPont continued to make gunpowder until 1975 but by then its sideline chemicals and synthetic products businesses had grown to dominate the company. In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek, a DuPont scientist, developed the first liquid crystal polymer, providing the basis for Kevlar, the patented fibre used in bullet-proof and knife-resistant body armour. Kevlar fibres are also to be found in industrial gloves that are widely used to prevent cuts and injuries in manufacturing processes. They also reinforce the huge tyres used by mining lorries and the ropes aboard many of the world's ships.

In 1996, the US government awarded its National Medal of Technology to Dr Kwolek for her life-saving invention. Some other chemicals DuPont produced in the mid 20th century were more controversial. The company was one of several that manufactured the insecticide DDT for the armed services during the Second World War. The unforeseen harmful effects of DDT on the environment - it was linked to high rates of mortality in pollinating insects and birds and fish - sparked public outcry in the 1960s. The resulting environmental movement presented DuPont and other chemicals manufacturers with sustained and costly challenges that persist to this day.

Nevertheless, the company has maintained an unwavering commitment to industrial safety. In 2002, it launched a global safety awards programme. Last year, Egypt LNG was a recipient. The gas liquefaction and export company received the award for developing a behaviour-based workplace safety programme that influenced Egyptian safety culture. Another important development for DuPont was the appointment last year of its new chief executive officer Ellen Kullman. Before being named the company's top executive, Ms Kullman had spearheaded the development of a safety-focused products and services business for DuPont. That unit is at the forefront of the three main business developments she has chosen for the 208-year-old company as it recovers from its latest setback, the global recession.