DuPont engages the energy and environmental crises of the 1970s, enters the energy business, and expands its presence in the electronics and pharmaceuticals fields.
DuPont makes key contributions to Allied victory in World War II, widens its product offerings to post-war consumers and struggles with antitrust charges and larger social and economic tensions.
During the 1960s and 1970s, DuPont continued to make breakthroughs in engineering polymers through new blending techniques and exploration of composites, plastics in which a filler is added to impart particular characteristics. In 1973, the company developed Zytel ST, a super tough nylon resin derived from blending nylon with other resins. The product was an immediate success with automotive companies seeking to reduce car weight by substituting resins for metal. Rynite® PET is a thermoplastic composite that contains uniformly dispersed glass fibers and provides excellent electrical insulation characteristics. Today, DuPont engineering polymers provide a broad portfolio of materials for automotive, electrical, electronic, consumer, and industrial applications.
Research. Discovery. Innovation.
Commitment to basic scientific research survives the Great Depression to yield phenomenal results in synthetic rubber and textiles.
In 1950, DuPont issued its first license to another firm for the production of nylon. At the same time the company developed it for other markets, particularly as belting in truck and automobile tires. At mid-decade, after a successful six-year test at Wilmington's Hotel du Pont, DuPont began producing a nylon staple for carpeting. In 1959, DuPont introduced an improved product, bulked continuous filament (BCF) nylon, which, along with Antron nylon, introduced in 1960, revolutionized the carpet industry. The development of new varieties of nylon continued during the 1960s and 1970s with durable Zytel nylon resins and Qiana, a silk-like nylon. Although its profitability has diminished over time as competitors entered the market, DuPont remains the world's leading producer of nylon chemical intermediates, polymers, and textile fibers.
Nylon changed the way people dressed worldwide and rendered the term "silk stocking" — once an epithet directed at the wealthy elite — obsolete. Its success also encouraged DuPont's management to adopt a long-term strategy of growth through products developed out of basic research.
Zytel® Nylon Resin
Zytel nylon resin is a versatile engineering plastic developed by DuPont chemists in the 1930s during their research on nylon 6,6, the durable polyamide polymer used in nylon stockings. During World War II, when the U.S. government advised substituting plastics for metals wherever possible, DuPont began large-scale production of its new nylon resin for use in engine gears, cams, valves and ball bearings. After the war, DuPont named the resin Zytel and marketed it as a lightweight, heavy-duty industrial and engineering plastic resistant to heat and corrosive chemicals. However, Zytel tended to crack when notched by poor mold design or surface scratches. In 1973 DuPont researcher Bennet N. Epstein solved the cracking problem by blending it with small amounts of other resins to make "Super Tough" Zytel ST. Its introduction during the 1973-74 oil shortage proved timely as automobile manufacturers used it in gas tanks, interior panels and engine components to reduce vehicle weight and increase gas mileage. The success of Zytel ST in automobiles soon led to new applications in appliances, wire insulation, sporting gear, and home furnishings. In 1994, DuPont introduced Zytel HTN (high temperature nylon) for applications involving toxic chemicals, high humidity levels, and extreme temperature environments.
The experimental station and transformative growth
DuPont becomes a modern, diversified chemical company and undergoes a major reorganization.
During its early 20th century diversification efforts, DuPont grew interested in the Viscose process, particularly after raw silk prices and consumer attraction to artificial silk both rose. DuPont tried to enter the fiber business by acquiring the American Viscose Company, but was rebuffed, and in 1920 licensed the French process instead. The company then established the DuPont Fibersilk Company in Buffalo, New York, under Leonard Yerkes, to develop the process. After the generic name "rayon" was coined in 1924, the enterprise was renamed the DuPont Rayon Company.
The product was profitable from the start, and through the 1920s rayon earned DuPont a 33 percent return on investment. Among the process improvements DuPont made were the production of short-strand "staple" fiber, suitable for bulk woven items, and dry spinning. Sales of textile fiber dropped during the 1930s, leading DuPont to introduce the highly successful Cordura rayon tire cord, but by the end of the decade, rayon was six times as plentiful as silk in American clothing, and the market supported eight DuPont rayon plants.
DuPont’s rayon operations had a secondary benefit. The expertise gained there proved critical to the rapid development of nylon during the late 1930s. Although rayon was a man-made fiber, it wasn’t a pure synthetic since its basic component, cellulose, was naturally fibrous. After World War II rayon fell victim to the success of the "true" synthetics, Orlon, Dacron and nylon. DuPont produced its last rayon textile yarn in 1960 and tire cord was phased out two years later.
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 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 nylon. In 1946, DuPont authorized $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-driven approach.
By 1960, the explosive growth spurred 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 redefined itself as a "discovery company," emphasizing the bright possibilities of science rather than the hazards. 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 many 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.
Science, vision, and the birth of DuPont
DuPont becomes a modern, diversified chemical company and undergoes a major reorganization.