Industrial Research Laboratories
Where does technological innovation happen?
We have talked about how engineering schools struggled to put
science and engineering together. The same struggle had to
be worked out in the workplace.
As science became more significant inventors like
Thomas Edison who didn't have formal education found themselves
at a disadvantage.
- Who comes up with new technology?
- How are those people trained?
- Where do they work?
Royal Gunpowder Mill, Ireland
Du Pont: ( DuPont Company History
, Hagley Museum )
- E. I. du Pont started a gunpowder
business in 1802. There wasn't much innovation, though
Du Pont sometimes took samples of saltpeter to
a Philadelphia chemist for analysis before accepting the
- Lammot du Pont was the first leader of
the family business to go out and investigate what science
could contribute--he took a degree in chemistry at the
University of Pennsylvania and made some significant
innovations, such as a way to substitute sodium nitrate for
potassium nitrate. Organic chemistry of dyes was
turning out to be related to explosives--in 1880 Lammot
started his own company, the Repauno Chemical Company, to
make dynamite. But he was killed in an accident.
- Lammot du Pont's role as
chemist-entrepreneur was taken over by Charles T.
Jackson. Hired chemists for manufacturing control,
investigation of complaints, evaluation of new inventions,
and improvements in the factory process, but not
specifically to develop new products.
- The invention of smokeless
powder threatened DuPont--they saw the power of
patented innovations. In 1902 the laboratory was
separated from production and assigned to develop new
products, though they often ended up doing further
development on patents bought from Germany and they still
did some testing and manufacturing control.
- By 1912 the Chemical Department had 120
people, and at the end of World War I new product research
took of to find a use for idle gunpowder factories.
Branched out into plastics, dyestuffs, and paints; rayon
1920, synthetic ammonia 1924, cellophane 1927 (all purchased
French technology). For example, they bought the
patent for cellophane in 1924, and by 1927 had developed a
moisture proof cellophane.
they found it hard to establish leadership--they invested
some $40 million in dyestuff research after 1917 but found
that they mostly ended up producing colors that had been
pioneered in Germany.
- The new products that finally came
entirely from inside the lab were fibers--neoprene
(synthetic rubber) in 1930 and nylon in 1933.
Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory ( Henry Ford Museum )
- Edison claimed he didn't need science,
but he did have almost an industrial research lab where he
hired inventors and mathematicians to work out the details
of his ideas.
- General Electric started to look towards
more systematic research as Edison's patents expired--the
basic one in 1894. GE's carbon filament faced
competition from Nernst's ceramic filament, which
Westinghouse had the American patent on. The company
was following a strategy of buying patents from inventors,
but that was costing a lot.
- In 1900 General Electric's chief
consulting engineer, Charles Steinmetz, proposed the
establishment of a laboratory for original research entirely
separate from the factory and immediate production
problems. "We all agreed it was to be a real
scientific laboratory." Modeled on experiments already
underway in Germany to bring scientists into corporations.
- Headed by Willis
Whitney, a professor of physical chemistry at MIT with
a Ph.D. from Leipzig (under Wilhelm
Ostwald). Whitney was tired of low salaries,
slow promotions, and lack of facilities, and interested in
industrial problems. GE was a disappointment at
first--he found himself temporarily housed in a barn at GE
because of space problems. He solved that problem by
burning down the barn.
- Lab went from 8 people in 1901 to 102 in
1906--30 to 40% of the staff had scientific training.
Whitney believed that the way to develop new products was to
do exploratory scientific research; GE was willing to buy
that idea because Whitney kept clear that the goal was new
products. University gave social prestige, research
freedom, and professionalism. Lab offered money and
time to work on research without demands for teaching and
- Whitney's staff got to work on light
bulbs and found a way to improve the carbon bulb 25% by
baking the filament.
- But all that was rendered obsolete by the
invention in Germany of more efficient lamps with filaments
made of rare metals such as tungsten and tantalum (by Carl
Auer von Welsbach, Walther
Nernst and Werner von Bolton). In 1906 GE had to
buy patents at a cost of $300,000--a great defeat for the
lab. William Coolidge said: "These were the expenses
that the Laboratory had been founded with the purpose of
preventing." Even then there were tremendous problems
with putting the new technology into use, and the laboratory
worked on those without much success (see T. P.
Hughes American Genesis p. 167).
Whitney suffered a breakdown, partly mental and partly
untreated appendicitis. He eventually returned to the
lab as a manager, not as a researcher.
- His replacement as leader of research was
Coolidge, a Ph.D. from Leipzig, also a physical
chemist. He was hired in 1905 at a salary of
$2400--50% more than he was making at MIT. His 1913
patent on a process for making an improved
filament saved the lab. But this was still an
improvement of an existing product, not something radically
Langmuir was the first to break that barrier.
Had a Ph.D. from Gottingen where he had studied under
Walther Nernst (discoverer of the 3rd law of thermodynamics)
and a commitment to pure science, but he had little time for
research at his job at Stevens Tech. Attracted to GE
by the idea of spending full time on research and by better
equipment. What were the limits? Company owned
patents, required reports of research and daily
notebook. Langmuir studied chemical reactions a low
pressures (inside a light bulb) and published a stream of
papers in physics and chemistry (averaged 5 papers a year
from 1912 on) and also a steady stream of patents.
- In 1916 Langmuir invented the gas-filled
bulb--gave GE market domination (96% of American
incandescent-lamp sales in 1928). He won the Nobel
prize for his work in surface chemical reactions (the
work that had led to the lamp) in 1932.
- The lab had proved itself at GE, but the
secret was that to get radically new products or new
approaches you had to let scientists do fairly open-ended
scientific research, rather than telling them what to work
on. Scientists had to prove themselves first, but then
the top scientists were allowed to pick their own research
Industrial research allows corporations to
- Key features of industrial research lab:
- freedom from operational
responsibility: if lab employees have to solve factory
problems they won't get to researching new products
- hiring Ph.D. scientists--because a
Ph.D. teaches you original research
- allowing scientific
publication--because that is a reward system scientists
- defensive and offensive
patenting--patent things your competitors need, not just
things you need
- Attracted scientists who were inventive
and practical-minded but had no taste for the
entrepreneurial activity and the financial risk taking in
which the independent inventors had had to involve
this page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
last updated 10/10/2005