Irénée du Pont: My name is Irénée du Pont, Junior. I-R-E-N-E-E D-U P-O-N-T, J-R. I was born January 8, 1920, and I have not died yet.
Cindy Kelly: Well, that is something that we are all very grateful for. It is wonderful to be here today. I am Cindy Kelly, it is August 11, 2014, and we are in the gracious home of Irénée du Pont, Jr. And we are here to learn a little bit more about his life and the company who shares his name. So maybe we can start with your life.
Du Pont: Well, my life has not been much. I have been dilatory in my duties ever since birth, I am sure. But it certainly has been a pleasant time on the planet, and Barbie and I are still enjoying it. We have been married over seventy years, and we have had five productive children, thirteen grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. So it has been a great experience.
Kelly: You have written earlier that you grew up in Philadelphia. Where was your family?
Du Pont: Well my father’s family, my father grew up in Philadelphia. My grandfather Lammot Du Pont is my father’s father. He had a few disappointments with the DuPont Company, which was run by a President, and nobody else knew what was going on, either financially or who the customers were. And the President did everything.
Lammot was an engineer and a chemist and he did not seem to be going anywhere. He read in the paper that some Swede had invented a way of making nitroglycerine manageable, and so he applied and received a license under the Nobel system for making dynamite. He left the DuPont Company and moved the family to Philadelphia and built a dynamite plant across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. And he had an unfortunate experiment where he lost his life when a charge of nitroglycerine got out of control, an experimental charge, and detonated.
So that left his family, his wife and ten children with another one in utero, with nothing much to do. But fortunately, Lammot left an estate, which made it possible for them to get educated and live rather comfortably. So years later of course, the DuPont Company bought the Eastern Dynamite Company and made it part of theirs. But that was after the tyrant President had moved on.
So my father had an older brother who seemed to know how the world worked, and he had a quick mind and a good heart. And the older brother saw that his four younger brothers all were admitted to MIT to get educated. And two of the four younger brothers stayed in college long enough to get degrees. And my father came out with a Master’s degree, and that was the depression of 1898, and so he had trouble getting a job. But his older brother’s college roommate at MIT had a manufacturer’s contracting company in Newark, New Jersey, and hired my father. My father, with a job, was able to marry his second cousin, Irene du Pont, and they produced eight daughters, and then I came along and ruined it.
So that is my background.
Kelly: So your dad was working for this company in Newark, New Jersey, and then what happened?
Du Pont: Oh, well his older brother executed the mother of all leveraged buyouts. He and Pierre du Pont, which is my father’s older brother, born in 1870 and died in 1954, he got the DuPont Company off on a new tack with the leveraged buyout. And so he bought the manufacturer’s contracting company and made it the Engineering Department of the DuPont Company. My father moved to Wilmington with that acquisition, that early acquisition of an engineering group.
Then the children started appearing. Two were born in New Jersey, and the next six daughters were born at 17th and Rising Sun Lane in Delaware, Wilmington, Delaware. They were very pleasant older sisters. I came along still at 17th and Rising Sun Lane, but in 1923 my father and mother moved all of them out to the country in the house that you are interviewing me right today. Now what?
Kelly: That is wonderful. So how many bedrooms? Was there one for all nine of you and your parents?
Du Pont: Well, in the old days, people did not have that many bedrooms. My sisters were eight so they had always lived in four bedrooms, and they proceeded to do that. This house does have eleven bedrooms of sorts. The one in attic, well the shower is an afterthought, and it is a pretty humble room and it gets very hot in summer. But the ten other bedrooms are scattered around the house. And five of them were occupied by the eight daughters and I had one to myself. It is a small room, I remember, and I shared a bathroom with the housekeeper.
My little bedroom overlooked the front courtyard. I can remember when things were noisy downstairs, that meant there were a lot of grownups talking and having, I guess, adult beverages in the days of Prohibition. And then after a while, things would get quieter, and we would see the headlights of cars would make patterns on the ceiling of my bedroom. The light came through the window and these rectangles and triangles and shapes would form on the ceiling, and I knew then that the party was over and they were all going home.
Kelly: Oh, that is great. So do you think that that was something that was a frequent occurrence? Did your parents have a lot of entertaining? Did they do a lot of entertaining?
Du Pont: Well my parents did a lot of entertaining. Certainly while my father was President of the company, he was obliged to bring home every visiting potentate that came from England or France or wherever to see how to make various new products that the DuPont Company was making. So we had Sunday luncheons where the married daughters would come back with their husbands, and whatever friends that my father had to bring home for the weekend would be there to witness the procedure of American dinner on Sunday. They were elegant; we had a butler and a serving maid, and the tablecloth was spread, a white one with a pad underneath it to make it kind of soft, and so you would spill a wine glass very easily. And the conversation was all adult stuff that I did not understand.
Kelly: Did you go to school nearby? I mean did you go away to school?
Du Pont: The lady that really ran the house had been my mother’s boarding school roommate and had been a teacher. And she came after she closed the school that she and her sister ran, she came and lived with us to take care of things. She came about the time that my father was promoted to the Presidency and he knew he was going to do a lot of traveling. So Aunt Rebe, we called her, Aunt Rebe ran the house. I shared a bathroom with her, and so I got to know her.
And so when I got to be six years old she said, “I think that boy ought to get taught and start school.”
And so my mother said, “Well, why do you start teaching him and then we will figure out where to go from there?”
So I got the equivalent of first grade from Aunt Rebe. And she was good because when I started out at Tower Hill School in second grade, I was the head of the class for quite a few months before they caught up. But she insisted on cursive writing and spelling, arithmetic and learning how to read. So I was a good reader in those days but I never learned any more, so I am a very slow reader now because that is the way my brain works.
But after Tower Hill, I graduated at age eighteen and got enrolled at Dartmouth, because at Tower Hill there had been quite a number of very successful movements from Tower Hill to Dartmouth. And they had an arrangement where Dartmouth would take any Tower Hill graduate that was recommended by the headmaster and he recommended four from our graduating class, and I was one of them.
I went to Dartmouth and it was very interesting because I had never been away from home, but they were pleasant. I need not go too far how my classmates did, but my roommate Glen Brown, he got there at Dartmouth with me and he majored in adult beverages. And I noticed he was not going to class much, and I think by January he got a grade point average of 0.6, and they did not ask him back in June. He went to the Army. I did not see Glen much for a long time, but he did marry.
The next time I met him was about the third or fourth move. The DuPont Company had moved Barbie and me to Charleston, West Virginia, and Glen Brown was my boss. He had married, and she took him by the ear and got him into Virginia Polytechnic Institute and he was on the Dean’s List the whole way through. So he was ahead of me by the time we got back together at the Bell Works for the DuPont Company. He was a great guy, a nice boss, thoughtful and firm.
Kelly: So what was your major at Dartmouth?
Du Pont: I only lasted two years and thought I was going to major in chemistry. But by the second year of chemistry, it did not have much that I could really figure out, it was more like Latin, you just learn a whole lot of proofs you know, and you have to apply them. You could not look at it and see how it was going to happen.
I made the mistake of buying a used Cadillac. I bought a 1918 Cadillac as a freshman, which if you were a freshman you were not allowed to do, and I did not have to do much fixing up. It ran very well. I was working on it one day in my sophomore year and I suddenly realized, you know, I like doing this. This is much more fun than what I do up in my room with all that homework stuff.
My roommate was having the same feelings about his majoring in chemistry. And he said, “I am going to quit the chemistry and be a doctor. Why don’t you go ahead and just go to a school where they have mechanical engineering?”
“Where is that?”
“Well, MIT does.”
“Oh, I could not go there.”
“Well, try it.”
And I sent in an application and I got back a catalog and little correspondence. And the next thing I knew I was admitted as—I had to repeat my sophomore year, but that was not bad considering. And when I got to MIT, my marks went up significantly and it was fun because everything you had in class was interesting and you could understand it.
So I got out of the class of 1943. We graduated during the war and we had to go all summers to keep up because of the war effort. And so I only lost half a year by the move, and graduated and was hired by Ranger Aircraft Engines in Farmingdale, Long Island, and had three great years fighting the battle of Farmingdale, which was, as a civilian, was interesting.
After the war I left because they really did not have much to do. Making small airplane engines was of no interest at the time. And so then Andy Wyeth’s older brother told me to come put in an application at the DuPont Company, and he was my boss. I started in the Engineering Department of the DuPont Company under Nat Wyeth, and moved on from there.
Kelly: So what year was that then, ’43, ‘46?
Du Pont: ’43, oh ’46. I started in the DuPont Company on April Fool’s Day of 1946. They moved us, Barbie and me, from Arlington, New Jersey, to Parkersburg, West Virginia, to Charleston, West Virginia, and then to Wilmington, Delaware. So we had a good tour of duty.
Kelly: This is over what period of years? I mean, how long were you in West Virginia?
Du Pont: All right, we were three years in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and two years in Charleston, and came to Wilmington in 1953. And there, I had various jobs around the company and I took early retirement in 1978, and I have just been a laggard ever since.
Kelly: So you were there when Crawford Greenewalt, your brother-in-law, was running the company?
Du Pont: Yes. Crawford was given the President’s Chair in 1948. I was at the Arlington, New Jersey plant at the time. I remember one of the first plants he came to visit was our plant in north Jersey. He walked into the field office of the Engineering Department. There were eleven of us in one room with desks filling up every space you could. And the coal pile supplying the boiler, the steam plant for the whole plant, was right outside the window. On a hot summer day you would open the window and your drawing board would get covered with black coal dust, but we had a brush to brush it off with. And Crawford came in and said some nice things and wanted to know what I was doing, and I showed him the spooling machine that was not working very well, but it was my fault because I was having trouble developing a way of spooling nylon fish leader on spools without stretching it. Because it is hard to make a good package if you put it on too tight.
Kelly: So that was your challenge that you were working on when he came by?
Du Pont: That was what I happened to be doing when Crawford was first President, spooling fish leader.
Kelly: You figured it out? It worked?
Du Pont: Like a lot of those problems, people make it, find another way to do it. The fish leader was not one of the bigger problems of the DuPont Company at that time.
Kelly: So in another interview you talked about your recollections of Crawford. Is there anything that you want to—
Du Pont: I do not remember what I said then. He was a delight for everybody. Crawford had the ability to listen and he would find out whoever he sat down with. He would find out all about them and get them to tell their story to him. And he learned a lot that way.
Kelly: But after New Jersey, you then moved on to West Virginia and then back to Wilmington?
Du Pont: Well, you left the three years at Ranger Aircraft Engines out.
Kelly: Oh, right.
Du Pont: That was between ’43 and ’46.
Du Pont: And that was why the calendar did not match up.
Kelly: That is right. Were those engines used on bombers or transport?
Du Pont: The one I was working on, which was their biggest engine, was a 12-cylinder inline V-12, V-12 inline air-cooled engine. And it was rated at 500 horsepower continuous service and 550 horsepower for five minute take-offs. So it is a small engine for military use. They used it in their catapult airplanes, the Curtiss S03C, which had a big pontoon for landing on the ocean, but it would be fired from a battleship off of a catapult. It was literally shot into the air at flying speed, and would go up and do whatever observations were requested by the captain of a big ship that was big enough to have a catapult on it. It was also used on training planes for Army and I do not remember where.
We did not make an awful lot of them, I am guessing probably made a few thousand.
Kelly: The Ranger Manufacturer was the—
Du Pont: It was a division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Company.
Kelly: Did you ever see one of those catapults?
Du Pont: Much earlier, when I was ten years old, my mother had taken the unmarried daughters and me to see the Oberammergau Play. On the way back, we came back on the Europa, a German ship. This was 1930. I was ten years old, and we got up the morning so that the mail plane would be shot off of the Europa to carry the mail two days out of New York. So that it was the fastest way to send mail from Europe to America, three days on a ship and the airplane landed in a matter of hours into New York. That was quite a sight to see, the catapult fire the German airplane out of it. And it could not land on the water; once he was in the air, he had to go.
Kelly: To make it the whole way.
Du Pont: Yeah.
Kelly: So wow, so what was his range? How long would he—
Du Pont: Well it must have been 40% of the trip that the Europa would take, five days. And it would do 40% of the crossing time in the matter of a few hours.
Kelly: Wow. So this job with the Ranger got you a deferment from the Army?
Du Pont: Yes, I was only twenty-three and I got deferments. When I turned twenty-six, the Army was not interested in people. Actually, the war had been won by 1946, when I left Ranger. But it was an interesting job.
Kelly: It is interesting, many factories were hiring women because a lot of the men were gone. Is that true of this one?
Du Pont: Certainly, on the assembly line and all the clerical work, there were a lot of young ladies there, which was quite interesting for a twenty-three-year-old kid right out of college. I lived in a boarding house and the lady that ran the boarding house was quite aware of the hazard that could be had very easily if she allowed young ladies in. But she had a house full of schoolteachers and young engineers in their twenties. The schoolteachers were respectfully older. She kept an orderly house.
Kelly: Great, wow. So what did your sisters do during the war? Did any of them have wartime jobs?
Du Pont: Yes, my sisters did great things. Right here at Granogue, Delaware, there was a railroad station and post office, a fourth-class post office in a little shed down the hill. And when the postmaster retired, they could not find somebody to replace the postmaster, so two of my sisters, my oldest one and my number four sister who lived nearby, shared the job of a postmaster. And for their services, the federal government paid $500 to the postmaster, so each sister got $250 a year reimbursement for their time. And it was a lot of work. They had to do the mail and keep track of the postage stamps and do all the government bureaucratic stuff. During the war, they managed it. That was two of the eight girls.
One of the girls, well there were only seven by that time, one of my sisters died at age 21. And so number two sister married Crawford Greenewalt, and you know all about that. That she went out to him for quite a bit, lived out there for quite a while and made trips out there and did traveling with him.
Another sister married a Congressman from Virginia, a US Congressman, so she moved to Norfolk, Virginia at the time of her marriage in 1927. And by the time the war came, the Congressman Colgate Darden had become Governor of Virginia, so she had her hands full during the war. After the war, Colgate found himself as President of the University of Virginia and he had to fix a big problem down there too. But she was busy.
Doris, the one that died; Eleanor shared the post office with Sophie; Mary Ann married a Yale guy who had—he was good. He had been with a securities broker but when the war came, he joined the Navy and did well, and became Captain and Chief Officer of a mine sweep, a good-sized diesel driven boat. So he did time in the Pacific.
And Tibby, she went to New York and got hired by one of the big hospitals up there and met a doctor who was interested in treating cancer with radium or nuclear materials, and she spent the war working in that laboratory.
Lucille married a chemist in the DuPont Company, Flint, and raised a family and did what a good wife should do with a man who was making secret stuff in the DuPont Company: we never found out, never talked about what Bob Flint was doing. After the war, he got a job looking at patents or something. So that accounted for all seven of my surviving sisters. None of them are survived to this time.
Kelly: That is curious about Crawford’s wife, Margaretta, I did not realize that she spent time in Hanford.
Du Pont: I think they had a house assigned to them for a while. Yes, she was out there.
Kelly: With her three little kids?
Du Pont: Well, let me see, yes, they were all three of them. I think they kept somebody back home. The children never went out there, to my knowledge.
Kelly: I see.
Du Pont: So that might have been a matter of just a few months that she was in Hanford.
Kelly: Do you remember any stories?
Du Pont: We did not know anything. We would not have heard. When she disappeared, she was going to see where her husband was. It was totally secret, never had an inkling.
My knowledge of the Manhattan Project occurred when I was at Ranger. I was running a single cylinder engine, running knock limited mixture response curves on a single – one Ranger cylinder barrel on a little experimental machine. And my boss came in and he said, “Rip, stop the engine.”
“Oh look, I had just got the temperatures going right, we are getting good data now.”
“Shut it down.”
“What is the trouble? What is going on?”
“They have dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.”
“What is an atomic bomb? Where is Hiroshima?”
I had no idea what was going on in Crawford’s line, and suddenly realized that that must be what Crawford was doing. It took me about all ‘til suppertime that day before I put enough together.
Kelly: When did you confirm that with him, do you remember?
Du Pont: Well everything came out in the paper very soon, and we even used long distance telephone calls to go from Farmingdale, New York to Wilmington, Delaware. I talked to my father and he described what he knew. And Barbie and I would come weekends every now and then down to Delaware and get acquainted. We would go to New Hampshire to her family too. So we would spend most of our weekends one way or the other.
Kelly: So do you think your father knew more about what Crawford was up to during the war?
Du Pont: Oh I am sure he did. See, he was on the Board of Directors. And they were all aware. That, as far as I know, is it. And they were all warned not to ask questions, pretend they did not know anything. Yeah, he knew what it was, and I am sure he shared all of their concerns about whether Germany was getting ahead of us or not. It was certainly the big issue.
Kelly: It was. But one of the things that Du Pont, that I have learned working on this project for twenty years, is how concerned Du Pont has been with safety and with the health and wellbeing of their employees.
Du Pont: Yes. The origin of that interest in safety really goes along a great distance back to – and it did not only include the Du Pont Company, everybody that made gunpowder knew how careful you had to be. In fact, for hundreds of years, manufacturers of gunpowder had a very bad name, they knew they did not last very long.
Now back in 1774, King Louis XVI of France started his reign. And he followed his grandfather or great-grandfather, Louis XV, the “Spendthrift King.” And France was an economic mess at the time and it was up to Louis XVI to do something about it.
And so Louis XVI heard that there was a Frenchman who really was beginning to understand chemistry. His name was Antoine Lavoisier, the “Father of Modern Chemistry,” he is known as. And Louis XVI fingered Antoine Lavoisier and made him director of the new powder plant that was being built by the French Government at Essonne outside of Paris.
And King Louis XVI looked Antoine Lavoisier in the eye and he said, “Now I do not want any of my subjects blown up in your powder plant. It is my powder plant but you are to run it so safely. And to be sure that you run it safely, you are going to build your house right in the middle of that plant and keep your family there while you are at work.”
That was King Louis XVI putting it pretty plainly, and all of this happened. And so all that was done as the King said. A chap named Éleuthère Irénée Du Pont was seventeen years old, and his father knew of Lavoisier and said, “Would you take my son as an apprentice and learn how to do what you are doing?” Which he did. And the apprentice lived in the house with the boss. And this young kid did all of the experimenting and recording, keeping data, quality control I guess you would call it. And he probably wrote home to his dad, “You know where I am, I am living right in the middle of this damn powder plant, and Mr. Lavoisier does not let me do anything except work!” So from that it is pretty clear that the real father of industrial safety was none other than Louis XVI of France.
The DuPont Company followed that procedure. When Éleuthère Du Pont came to America and built his powder plant, he built the residence on the little hill right overlooking the machinery that was making gunpowder just a couple of few hundred yards away. And they had a very good record. They started the company, it was founded in 1802, but they first started making gunpowder two years later, 1804. And their first fatality was in 1815. So they had eleven good years without a fatality. Now they did not keep records of people hitting their hands with a hammer or doing all the other things that can cause inconveniences in the industry, but that was a good record.
I guess the next real test of industrial safety came in 100 years later when they started making gunpowder for World War I, because that was when the company scaled up big time, and they did not do so well. And of course it was a much, much, bigger organization by then, they had plants scattered all over the United States. And then for World War I they built an enormous guncotton factory on the banks of the river in Virginia.
Kelly: The Rappahannock?
Du Pont: No, this is the big one, the James River. They built the Hopewell Plant on the James River and did all the nitrating at that one site. And they would bring shiploads of sodium nitrate up from Chile and dump the whole shipload, and they are mixing it with cellulose from all sources, wood pulp, or anything they could find, cornstalks, whatever. And nitric acid and that had to be done very carefully, but it was manageable. They did it for the whole – they just built a whole lot of nitraters, over 100 nitraters doing what one nitrater in a single gunpowder factory would do. And then you could ship the guncotton that came out of that safely along the barge or in railroad cars or anything. They knew how to do that safely, and all it would do would be burned anyway, it would not detonate.
So that system worked. They shipped the guncotton to all the other powder plants in the United States, both Hercules [Powder Company] and Atlas [Powder Company] and Du Pont. And that record was not so good; in 1917 I think there were 117 fatalities.
So my father got to be President in 1918 and he said, “We are going to get into this safety thing big time.” And he hired [Lewis] DeBlois, and they worked out a program that would get every employee excited about safety and believing in it. And it worked, and it made safety records far better than any other industry. Gunpowder and the things that they made were hazardous to begin with, but it was a lot safer than working in a textile plant or wherever.
Kelly: Well that culture certainly comes through in all of our interviews with people who worked for DuPont at Hanford. They sometimes joke about how many safety lectures they get, but they volunteer how much they appreciated that.
Du Pont: Well safety is something that anybody can understand. And so if you have got a new man that has come in on the job and you wanted to open a conversation, that is the first thing you do is to talk about safety. And you can walk around the workplace that he is going to be at and point out the different features, fire extinguishers and safety showers, and how necessary it is to act quickly if there is an accident.
Kelly: I have not seen any figures or heard anything other than the Du Pont record at Hanford was very, very safe. I do not think there was any exception.
Du Pont: I remember at Parkersburg, I was an Area Engineer in the nylon part of it making fish leader and brush bristle and the things that were not textile out of nylon. And we had a situation where one of the pipes got clogged up. It was full of hot nylon salt, gum that is ready to be charged into an autoclave in those days, and it was quitting time. I had two of my mechanics who were working with the operating people to try to help them get this thing unclogged. And both of the men that reported to me were up at ceiling height on this array of pipes overhead. And they had opened the pipe at both ends and nothing came out, and there was this valve in the middle of it going off to the side, and it was stuck. So they had to take the bonnet off the valve, and everybody in the operating department assured that there could not be anything in that pipe that would come out suddenly, but of course there was. When they cracked the bonnet open, a sheet of steam and nylon salt came out and hit these two guys that worked for me.
And I remember Charlie Parsons, he was an older man and he slid down off there. I caught him before he hit the floor, and the safety shower was twelve feet away and I pulled the handle and we both took a shower together. He had been scalded superficially. The other guy had actually got down himself and had not been seriously [hurt] – he got his clothes dirty, that is about all. But Charlie Parsons was classified as a minor injury. We took him to the hospital and he was examined. And he was back at work the next morning, so it was not a major injury. But that was firsthand to being there and see how the thing works. It was a good drill.
Kelly: One of the themes we are going to be trying to pursue is looking at all of the innovations that the Manhattan Project had to do because everything was brand new; it had not been done. So building a reactor, creating a chemical separation plant and so fort, required ingenuity and teamwork and multidisciplinary collaboration of a sort that was not usual for the times.
Du Pont: Well the company was successful in that particular project because they could overwhelm the problem with so many different options that one of them was bound to work in the conceptual stage. That just took up a lot of Uncle Sam’s money, and the whole thing was done for two billion dollars, as I recall. And that is pretty small by today’s comparison, but of course, those dollars would be worth twenty-five or forty dollars today. It is pretty hard to describe, but you could certainly multiply it by forty or fiftyfold to what it would require today. That would be impossible because you would have to have so many forms to fill out and you would have to do things that would be required and they could not have found the land to build it on them in the first place.
Kelly: It is pretty remarkable when you think what they were able to achieve.
Du Pont: Yep.
Kelly: So you come from a very storied family and it is wonderful to hear about all of your sisters, at least what they did in World War II.
Du Pont: They did, they were good girls. Connie with her violin, she took violin lessons as a little girl and stayed with it for her life, Connie Darden. And I tell about her because she shared it with people. She was struck by some of the older stringed instruments and wanted to learn how to play the viola d’amore, the fourteen-string violin, seven strings that you bow and then resonating strings down lower under the bridge of the violin. It gave it a very interesting tone quality. And she went to Ben Stad, S-T-A-D. Ben Stad was a violin teacher who also knew how to play a lot of things in Philadelphia.
He lived in a little row house on a busy street, and she stopped her Buick out in front of his house and walked in and introduced herself, “I want to get lessons on a viola d’amore.” And he looked out the window and saw the Buick Roadster and looked at her and wanted to get rid of her real fast.
So he said, “I do not really teach viola d’amore, and I could not do it.”
“How much would you charge for a lesson?”
He said, “Forty dollars.”
“Oh, that is good, I will pay that.”
She made friends with him and he found out that she was serious, and of course the friendship developed. He had an ensemble, the Society of the Ancient Instruments, and he played his premiere concert in this very room right here in 1927. And that was the beginning of a very successful development, at least in Philadelphia, of preservation of ancient instruments playing period music for a lot of people that enjoyed it.
Kelly: Great story. Looks like you have an organ back there as well, is that right?
Du Pont: Yeah.
Du Pont: The organ was built into the house. The house was built in 1923 and the organ was playing the day they walked in. It was played by perforated paper rolls like a player piano, but it was a true pipe organ with 1200 pipes. It is a small 23 rank organ that they call it, made by the Aeolian Pipe Organ Company of up in north Jersey. Anyway, the family enjoyed it very much. We have it in operating condition today but instead of perforated paper rolls, we have a computer that collected all of those holes and spaces between them. But we can play all of the old music along with what modern people play on the keys when they feel like it too.
Kelly: Fabulous, that is really neat.
Alexandra Levy: A lot of people in interviews talk about Du Pont’s experimental station.
Du Pont: Yeah.
Levy: Can you talk a little bit about what that was?
Du Pont: Yes, all right. Now a lot of that innovation that you were talking about is done at what we call here in Wilmington the Experimental Station. Hercules has one but they call it the Experiment Station, ours is the Experimental Station. You can argue about the name all you want, but it is a group of very well knowledgeable people in the sciences working together to try to solve industrial problems.
I do not have the figures but I am guessing it must be a fifty-acre site of buildings close together, and full of all kinds of scientific laboratories. I will have to find the numbers that go with it, but the type of people that work there are all interesting. Every one of them, even people who come in to sweep the floor, are the type of people you would like to invite home, meet and have dinner with your wife, you know. They are all friendly and excellent caliber of people working together.
It is hard to describe because I never actually worked in the Experimental Station, and did not do any experiments in the Experimental Station. Is that any help?
Levy: Yes. A number of Manhattan Project Veterans, it sounded like they started there before they went to work on the Manhattan Project.
Du Pont: Yes.
Levy: So it seems like it has been around a very long time.
Du Pont: Oh yes, the Experimental Station has been there since before the turn of the twentieth century. It was built in an old powder mill at first. And the purpose of course was to improve the quality of the gunpowder, being almost the only product that the Du Pont Company made. At that time it had become smokeless powder so that it was real chemistry, rather than alchemy gunpowder out of black powder.
Now the numbers of people that were working in the Experimental Station in 1940 must have been quite a large number because they had just completed the commercialization of nylon. Nylon was big but then there were many other products too, all kinds of paint finishes, and there were agricultural growing aids, and there were plastics. It was a busy place, and full of capable scientists working. So it was a gold mine for the kind of people that could be trained to consider making plutonium, if you could call it that name, but they would not have known at that time what they were talking about. So it was a great hiring ground for the Manhattan Project.
Kelly: So in terms of what research was like before World War II—the government invested so heavily in the Manhattan Project and radar and other efforts at universities to compete with war related innovation. The government really did not have very many research dollars. So how did research happen?
Du Pont: Well of course, most of it was done at the university level and pure science.
The military had some pretty big installations. The government was big in explosives, and of course the government had done all the work on military specialties, detonating charges, which do not have much use in industry, in building harbors and railroads. Back in World War I, it was learning to converge industrial gunpowder or dynamite or whatever the industrial explosives were, learning to make the complicated molecules in TNT and picric acid. All those sort of things that had to be done quickly in World War I, and I suppose had to do it all over again for World War II where the new explosives were far more sophisticated.
Videographer: Being a member of the Du Pont Family, did you feel growing up a lot of pressure as a result of just having that name or expectations?
Du Pont: It was more of a nuisance than anything else. Kids in school would be, “How much allowance do you get?”
Well I got seventy-five cents when everybody else got only a quarter, so you tell them the truth and that is it. And that is the way it was, and that $3.00 a month that my father gave me, I did not have any place to spend it. Without my father’s permission, I bought a Model T Ford at age twelve.
Kelly: At age twelve?
Du Pont: Yes. I knew how to drive a regular car by then. My sisters had taught me and it was just a matter of crouching down and pushing on that clutch pedal, which was a long stretch for somebody who is not full length yet, but at twelve I had gotten long enough to really push the clutch pedal, and even before that. Yeah, I think I first drove my sister’s Buick at age seven. I backed it out of the garage while she watched.
Kelly: So did your dad allow you to keep the car?
Du Pont: It so happened that my cousin’s nurse, Ben Du Pont’s nurse, had been—of course, she stayed on in the family as other children arrived younger than Ben. And her husband worked at the DuPont Flying Field as a serviceman on the aircraft, and he had the Model T that was for sale. So Hackendorn’s Model T was—I had the privilege of being driven over to buy it with $15 that I had saved. Five months savings all went into that Ford. And he had some kind of a registration on it, which our chauffer, Ernest McClay, figured was good enough to get us home on, and Ernest drove the car and I sat in the passenger seat. Charlie Wool sat in the back seat. He came along just for the fun to see it, driving in an old Ford. It was an old Ford, it was only eight years old, a 1924 Ford, but it lived outdoors, had no top. Somebody had put a quilted tablecloth for upholstery over the back seat, which looked pretty nice.
And we drove it home. Halfway home the throttle control, which was made out of coat hanger wire, broke, so Ernie gave me a stick and said, “Now you work the throttle from your seat, and I will tell you if I want more gas or less.” With the Ford, it was not much difference between idling and full throttle, you know.
So we got it home and I drove it around. The people that reported to my father were horrified. They told my father that “We could fix that Ford so it will never run again.”
My father said, “Let him have it now, but it does need safety glass in the windshield.” And he did not say anything. I agreed I needed safety glass in the windshield too, so he gave me the $12 to put the safety glass in the windshield, almost as much as the car cost. And I played with that car until I got a motorcycle. And when I was sixteen, my father gave me the Oldsmobile, which is out in the garage there today.
Kelly: Well you certainly have taken good care of these.
Du Pont: I wish I had the Ford. I traded it for a new band saw that somebody else had and I needed a band saw. The Ford was not still useful, but it would run.
Kelly: Well from your story about your days at Dartmouth where you discovered you liked tinkering with cars.
Du Pont: When I bought the Cadillac, I did not realize that I was also going to change colleges, change a career and be kept out of the war. I was avoiding the draft but I did not know that at the time.
Kelly: Well it looks like it is all a rather fortuitous development.
Levy: How did the nylon revolutionize the Du Pont Company?
Du Pont: Well nylon of course was the biggest thing that ever happened to the DuPont Company, without doubt. It was started as research in the laboratory, and Wallace Carothers came up with the molecule that was just what was needed for all the uses of fibers, plastics. so it started as an elegant piece of research in polymer chemistry and came out as the biggest moneymaker the DuPont Company has ever seen or ever thought of. By the full commercialization of nylon in the ‘50s, 1950s, It accounted for 50% of the company’s profits and 30% of the company’s sales. So that was a tremendous effect.
And then of course, the downside of it was that people began to think that you could do it again. And we would say, “Now take for instance nylon, here you do this. Take for instance nylon,” but nothing ever came anywhere close to following that level of success. And why it was so successful—again, it was the caliber of the people that were working on it and wanted to make it a success. There was a market, such a very diverse market for it, that everything that could be dreamed up had a place in the commercial world.
So it was a great major turning point for the DuPont Company, and it lasted for a very long time. When it became no longer a patented process, the DuPont Company extended its profitability by further research in the mechanical field, where they developed winding machines that could wind up near the speed of sound. Then they had what they called the coupled process, where you are spinning string of nylon and it has to be stretched four-fold so that it is going through the stretcher, coming out of the stretcher four times as fast as it comes out of the nozzle when it is being formed from a liquid into a solid. Well then, if that is going pretty fast out of that nozzle, you have to wind it up very fast to keep up. Before the coupled process, they would wind it up at the slow speed and then run it through the stretcher in batches at a more comfortable speed. But it took a lot of stretchers to handle one spinning machine.
Then somebody in the Engineering Department—I do not know, the name escaped me, I never heard that anyone got credit for that one, it was a team effort, obviously. They could wind it up at the faster speed for quite a long time before some people in Switzerland started selling machines that would do the same thing. Then that is when nylon because a commodity instead of a moneymaker for the DuPont Company.
Kelly: You said it was a problem because people thought, “Oh, we can make the next nylon.”
Du Pont: Yes, you would say, “For example, nylon,” as if there were words there is no example of other than nylon.
Kelly: One of the mysteries with the Manhattan Project, which, from things that I have read and the DuPont’s 200 anniversary history, is, what was the use of Teflon? Was there any use of Teflon in the Manhattan Project?
Du Pont: I would not know that. I know that it was being made at Arlington in very small amounts when I got there in 1946 and the purpose of it was to make the cones over proximity fuse projectiles. They wanted to make projectiles that would detonate just before they hit instead of after they hit. And they did that by putting high frequency radio in the front of the shell that could see through the Teflon, and nothing else would seem to make those fuses possible. So they a big secrecy effort around that Teflon building, which was no longer a secret when I got there. The Teflon process itself is an explosive, about the same intensity of black powder, so you make it in a three-sided building where you can blow the top and the side off for the same reason as the black powder.
Levy: I think it was Herbert Anderson, asked Crawford Greenewalt during the Manhattan Project, “Would you be going into nuclear power after the war?” And Greenewalt says, “No, nylon is more profitable.” So did Du Pont ever regret—did the company regret not hanging on?
Du Pont: That is a good question and I can tell you the answer. Why didn’t the DuPont Company go into nuclear activity after World War II? Well, with Crawford Greenewalt as Chairman, having been himself DuPont’s number one man in the Manhattan Project, both he and all of the people that worked on it from DuPont in the Manhattan Project had a ringside seat on what was going on in the nuclear power possibilities.
And very wisely they saw that making nuclear power was going to be more of a political problem than industrial problem. They saw that, they could anticipate what was going to happen, that it would be regulated completely, and so they elected not to pursue it. And Westinghouse and General Electric went headlong into it, and they lost their shirts because – well you have seen what has happened in nuclear power. It is really a political and ideological issue rather than solving engineering problems.
So you can say that I do not know how many gazillions of dollars Westinghouse and General Electric spent on it, DuPont did not have to spend that, they saved that amount of money by not doing it. So in that sense, it was very profitable not to do it.
Kelly: So they did not have long discussions? It was not a difficult decision?
Du Pont: No, no, it was not, as far as I know. I was not upstairs in the company at that time when they were making the decisions for this.
Du Pont: It was pretty unanimous.
Kelly: But then DuPont got dragged back into building –
Du Pont: Yeah, the Savannah River Plant, but it was again done for a dollar. I do not know if I should tell this or not.
Kelly: Go ahead.
Du Pont: I was on the board when Seagram’s, when the Bronfman’s had 25% of the Board, or Bronfman people, and so it came time to talk about how Savannah River was going. And the Savannah River representatives told the board about what they were doing, and Bronfman from Canada said, “Why are we doing this?”
Nobody knew. I was the youngest kid on the board, I suppose, from DuPont, so I did not know. I was kind of shocked because I did not know why we were doing it either. And so the board said, “We will get out. Let us find a graceful way to discontinue and get out of it.”
I should have stood up and I should have said, “The only reason for DuPont ever getting into any of this was purely patriotism. We received a dollar for the Manhattan Project and we received a second dollar for the Savannah River Project. But there is no motivation for it in the DuPont Company other than patriotism,” and sat down, but I did not.
I think the Bronfman’s were right. We should have gotten out of it because actually it turned out that was the time to get out, while you were still ahead and you still had a good name in it.
Kelly: But it was pretty tricky in the ‘50’s and the Cold War and pressure on you from I am sure Truman and then Eisenhower.
Du Pont: Well, somebody had to do it.
Kelly: And who else had the knowhow?
Du Pont: That is right.
Kelly: Did you know Roger Williams?
Du Pont: The older one, the one that was in the Manhattan work?
Du Pont: I had met him, I am sure, but I do not particularly remember. His son worked at the Bell Plant for a while and his ghost was still there when I was in Charleston, West Virginia. But the son was a high roller down there, and he left quite a swath behind him.
Kelly: So it sounds as if—at least in your experience, DuPont likes to move people around to different parts of the company.
Du Pont: They did.
Kelly: And is that true today as well?
Du Pont: I should imagine so. I have no way of knowing, but there are not nearly as many people, it is not a big bureaucracy anymore.
The company, when I was coming up through the ranks, was an enormous bureaucracy. I remember one of the first jobs I had in Wilmington was to help write some of these reports that were sent up through our department, Polychemicals Department, to the General Manager. And then he would send the information on to the Board of Directors or the Executive Committee, and then they would send it to the Board of Directors. And it was ridiculous the amount of stuff we had to detail that we would put in our monthly reports. And of course what they were doing, they were teaching young kids how to write and be part of a bureaucracy, which was good. Then of course they were teaching so many that they would go out and find better jobs with other companies, and that was part of the education of America, if you will, and that part of industry.
But it was wasteful because it did not produce any profits for the DuPont Company. And that is what the new company has avoided very well. They have cut the number of mid-management jobs down to a bare minimum. They even eliminated foremen in the plants. There is a plant manager and a circle of lieutenants around him. Then the hourly paid workers, instead of reporting to a foreman, would write down things that would be for the day shift of management to read. And with that, they of course, with everything being mechanized, there were very relatively few, but there is not anybody for the unions to organize left, because they are not managers. They are turning the valves or running the computers that can run the plant. And what do you want to call them? Are they managers? At least they are not the type of people that would want to join a union. They would have long left if they did not like the job they were in.
So that is how the company has gone from 150,000 people working and they narrowed it down to something like 60,000 now, maybe 50,000, I do not know. But it is like one-third of what it used to be.
Kelly: And that is reflective of all their plants worldwide? This is not just the American force that has shrunk?
Du Pont: Yeah, I presume that it is worldwide. I do not know about the numbers. 150,000 versus 50,000 or 60,000 is America only, is what I have heard. I do not know.
Kelly: Well your father gets credit for coming up with the Line and Staff Organization.
Du Pont: The Executive Committee. And that worked, but I think [Irving] Shapiro proved it was not needed any more.
Kelly: You want to describe what it was? Can you tell us a little bit about what it was?
Du Pont: What the Executive Committee did?
Kelly: Yes, what your dad came up with.
Du Pont: How does the top management of a company like DuPont, like nylon, work? My father got this job of President of the DuPont Company. The DuPont Company to him had been something that worked very hard during World War I, but here it was now buying new processes from Europe like rayon, cellophane, and how do you manage that?
And my father felt I guess the way I would: he felt sort of out of his depth in how to do this thing. He was used to working with other people. So he thought, “I will have the Executive Committee to do this job of managing the company and help find all of the good people in the company that could do that, and we will have a little club to discuss each of these items.”
I do not know how big the Committee was when he started it, whether it was nine including the President. There were eight other Vice Presidents, and I had a seat in that Committee. I cannot think of anything I did that helped it out but I was there.
And they would talk earnestly about all the issues. I remember Bob Hershey said, “All I do is read and vote. What is your job description?” Sometimes I would go visit plants and see how they were, that was about it; a trip to Japan and China at company expense to learn about that. That was for me, the company did not gain anything out of that. But the other seven and the President or Brel McCoy, they would sit around all day every Wednesday discussing these matters.
Shapiro came on the board and he was elected President, and he said, “We are not going to do that anymore.” And he invited me to retire. I was also President of Christiana Securities with obligation to manage 24% of DuPont’s outstanding stock. So he did feel that he had to ask me whether I would resign or not, and I told him, “Not until you pull Christiana into your company. I have my constituents, I have to stay on your board until you have done away with us,” which they did buy it out. Then he did not want me to leave too soon after that because he thought that would be bad publicity, so I stayed a few months and left.
Kelly: So he brought in a new form of a single executor?
Du Pont: There were more modern ways, I do not know, but I am sure he had somebody around him, three or four, five people, I do not know how many. But they had other assignments and of course computers were taking over at that time. So I would have really been out of my ability when that happened.
Kelly: Most interesting. So Du Pont proves to be a very adaptable company.
Du Pont: Yes, and Shapiro made it happen. Give him full credit.
Kelly: He had been General Counsel? Is he a lawyer, is that right?
Du Pont: Yes, General Counsel, and he had led DuPont through the General Motors Case, first as an outside attorney hired and then as an employee for the case which ultimately divested General Motors from the DuPont Company.
Cindy Kelly: That is sort of interesting, just looking at the history—how your father, he seemed to have been good friends of Alfred P. Sloan, who was the President of General Motors, and they were both running huge corporations.
Du Pont: Yes, well that was, of course, my father’s older brother that purchased the shares in General Motors. And they had what sounds like a rather simple problem that was killing General Motors. Well, why did DuPont acquire outstanding stock of General Motors Corporation in 1920? It was after the World War I; even Pierre DuPont did not know how much was going to be paid in after producing all that gunpowder for various nations. Because a lot of the contracts were unfulfilled but the money kept coming in, so there was a surplus of cash after World War I. “What do we do with the cash?”
We have a big staff of engineering knowhow here so Pierre said, “We will take on some public works that will be self-liquidating.” And he said, “Here is one we need is a Marine Terminal for Wilmington, Delaware. And we will build a shore side processing equipment and space for landing all the cargos of oceangoing ships right here in Delaware, and railheads for them and all the things they need. We will build that. Then the other thing we need in Wilmington is a housing development for professionals and mid-management people, and we will build Wawaset Park, and both of those of course were something that could be sold very well. Wawaset Park would be sold when people bought the houses, or bought the lots that they themselves would build houses on. And the Marine Terminal would be self-liquidating because it was a terminal. It would provide shore side services for ships that could not go all the way to Philadelphia where the channel gets smaller.”
So those were the first two public works projects that Pierre Du Pont used for parking this extra cash that was coming in. Then his friend, they saw there were business opportunities elsewhere in the country. William Durant’s General Motors was building a lot of cars, but it was not making any money. And John Rascob said, “I think I know why they are not making any money,”
Pierre said, “How do you know that?”
He said, “Because I have seen some of their books.”
“Well, tell me about it.”
And sure enough, what they had was a system where all the different automobile companies and suppliers that made up General Motors were independent corporations, and would simply pay their profits to General Motors.
Anybody would know that those profits were not going to be very much, that they were going to get distributed before William Durant ever saw them. So they put the DuPont Company system in order where any dollars paid to the DuPont Company for any product or service anywhere goes to the treasurer’s department first, and then gets distributed back to the organization that produced it. And so they have to have a central recipient for the incoming dollars. That put General Motors in a highly profitable position overnight. So that is how they got into it. They bought all outstanding shares that were available and then put some management into General Motors, which included Alfred P. Sloan to see that it happened. And he made it.
Kelly: Interesting. I think I read that DuPont had gotten something like $250,000,000 of profit in World War I. This was a sizable amount of excess cash on hand.
Du Pont: I do not know how much it was, but it was big and probably a lot bigger than gets reported by the historians. It started out, you know, with this contract with the British and the French in 1914. And you know that story.
Kelly: Well, tell us.
Du Pont: How did D Pont get into big-time munitions business? It started in 1914 when the British and the French had to fight a war against the Germans, and they did not have any source of gunpowder or munitions to fight with. So they came to America and said, “You make a lot of industrial explosives and you know something about military explosive, what can you do to supply our needs?”
“Well, what are your needs?”
“Our needs? Well, we have to have 60,000,000 pounds of various explosives right now and we will need 100,000,000 pounds per year until this war is over.”
The DuPont Company’s capacity was 10,000,000 pounds, and here they needed 60,000,000 pounds right now. What can you do? And Pierre turned to Chief Engineer William Ramsey and he said, “What do you think we can do?”
He said, “Let me go look it over.” William Ramsey, the Chief Engineer, said, “I will look it over.”
Three days later he came back and said, “Yes, we can do it.”
“What do you mean?”
They wanted 60,000,000 right now, which is very soon, and he came up with that engineering program for building a big guncotton plant on the James River and doing all the nitration in one place. And then sending the guncotton safely by barge or by rail to all the existing powder plants, which were converted then to making whatever military explosives was needed.
And the bill was going to come—they needed, in those days, some ridiculously small amount like $40,000,000 or $50,000,000 or something. So okay, we can do it, and then of course Pierre had to face up to “How are we going to finance it?” He came up with the idea, “What we will do: we will charge $1.00 a pound for the explosives, which were costing .53 cents along the open market at the time. We will charge $1.00 until we paid off the expenses of building these plants and rebuilding the power plants and building the big plant. And then from then on, we will reduce the price of the gunpowder so that DuPont gets 5% profit for the whole thing, the traditional 5%.” And the British and all agreed that that was the thing to do.
But then he had to go out and borrow enough money to start building these plants, and building the big one. And of course the big banks in New York realized that England and France were probably going to be taken over by Germany, and they would not pay for the powder and it was a bad loan. But one of the banks in New York, and I wish I could tell you the name of it, but it escapes me, said, “Yeah, we will do it,” and they made the loans, which was partial amounts over a period of time so it was not like all at once.
And they built the plant. They got the plant ninety days after the contract was signed. Guncotton was coming out of the first line. Ninety days to get the first part of the plant going. Of course by the end of the year, 60,000,000 pounds had gone overseas. And then they kept enlarging all the way through the wartime, and so that the one and a half billion pounds had been contributed to the Allied forces, which was 40% of their need. Where they got the 60% was through other European sources.
But that is how they got the big money at the end of the war, was from the 5% of this very large flow of gunpowder. And that made it possible to keep the wartime workforce intact, and the French and the Germans too were supplied the knowhow to diversified chemical industry. They got into German dyes and bought cellophane from France and rayon from France.
Kelly: So there was a lot of exchange then, between DuPont and these enterprises in Germany?
Du Pont: Europe, both Germany and France and England were all in bad shape after the war. They would do anything for money. They would sell their knowhow to the Americans for a fee, and that is where DuPont got so much of its diversification in the ‘20s. But of course the Germans had all the synthetic nitrate that they wanted because Fritz Haber had provided the knowhow for the Kaiser, building big powder plants. And William Ramsey had to match it with natural nitrates from Chile.
Kelly: Very interesting. The can-do company.