Making the Impossible Possible
Since the inception of the company, mechanical engineering enabled the design and construction of DuPont facilities from the first black powder mills on the banks of the Brandywine.
The inherently dangerous nature of manufacturing gun powder and explosives required careful attention to support the company’s commitment to safety. Engineering concepts were used to reduce the risk of explosions, and when they did occur, engineering concepts were applied to understand root causes and improve processes.
Formation of a Dedicated Engineering Department
In 1903 the DuPont Engineering Department was founded. You could count its members on one hand. But as the company expanded its geographic reach and business pursuits, engineering expanded with it.
Because there were no construction or power companies, the company relied on engineers to design and manufacture equipment to fill those facilities, and even build the homes for workers. While DuPont engineers’ primary responsibility was to construct new facilities, they also honed specialized engineering technical competencies. For example, they analyzed ways to reduce the costs of generating steam and electrical power.
Engineers meticulously documented every detail, capturing many of the early photographs that we have of our history. In 1915, the Field Engineering program was created to recruit and develop early-career talent through rotational work experiences, a tradition that is now more than a century old. DuPont engineers were recognized for making the impossible possible during the best — and the worst — of times.
During WWI, engineers enabled DuPont to supply 40 percent of the gunpowder used by the Allies by building their largest site to date at Hopewell, Virginia, as well as the town to support more than 1,800 families. When demand for gunpowder unexpectedly doubled just as construction began, DuPont engineers resolved to make the impossible possible — to protect the nation. They flipped their blueprints and made a mirror image of the original lines, creating two back to back plants to meet higher production requirements.
From Design and Construction to Chemical Engineering
As DuPont diversified from gunpowder into chemicals around the turn of the 19th century, engineers put technology into practice by building plants for customers, testing new innovations at the Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware, and working with cellulose-based materials.
In 1925, Thomas Chilton joined DuPont, from which he and his peers became founders of modern chemical engineering. DuPont engineer John Howard Perry compiled the first Chemical Engineer’s Handbook with help from colleagues both inside and outside the company. Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook has equipped generations of chemical engineers and is still in use today.
During World War II, engineers not only constructed munitions facilities for the Allies, they also helped DuPont scientists bring their inventions to customers. They developed new applications for DuPont materials — for boats, parachutes and the wiring of B-29 bombers.
DuPont engineers were recognized when the U.S. government asked the company to play a key role in the atomic energy race. DuPont engineers took on the challenge of building the Hanford Works and Savannah River Plant to produce plutonium. In 1945, members of the Engineering Department joined the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago.
As DuPont continued to diversify and expand significantly in Europe, engineers had an important role in the scale of production for a broad range of inventions.
In 1964, Henry B. du Pont said, “At the center of all technological progress will be the engineer. It is the engineer who literally moves scientific discovery from the laboratory bench to the full-scale plant.”
In the latter part of the century, DuPont engineers applied computer technology to revolutionize plant design and operations. Developing some of the first CAD and 3D plant model software, DuPont engineers led the implementation of the first commercial distributed control systems that gave the company a competitive edge. This enabled engineers to solve manufacturing challenges and set up new product innovations with these innovative technologies long before a single dial was turned in the plant.
Evolution of Engineering to Meet Tomorrow’s Needs
Since the first female engineer joined the department in 1972, DuPont’s commitment to building a diverse pipeline of engineering talent has grown.
From hosting onsite robotics teams to promoting women in STEM, DuPont engineers have volunteered alongside of their peers across the company for countless hours and inspired thousands to join and excel in the engineering profession.
As DuPont’s core values expanded, engineers played a major role in reducing the company’s environmental footprint. Novel technology and elegant plant design enabled DuPont to produce the next generation of advanced and environmentally sustainable chemistry.
“Today engineers help DuPont make lives better, safer and healthier for people everywhere,” says Gayle Gibson, director of DuPont Engineering and the company’s chief engineer. “DuPont engineers partner with scientists, business colleagues and customers more than ever before to drive growth and improve asset competitiveness, to scale new technologies, and to execute capital projects all around the world.”
We are proud of the contributions DuPont colleagues have made to the company and the role that DuPont engineers have had in helping to make the impossible, possible.