E.I. du Pont: Shaping America with Science and Engineering
When 29-year-old Eleuthère Irénée du Pont set sail for America in 1799, he had no idea he’d soon found a company that would change the course of science and business in the United States. That company would also, many years later, play a key role in the “westward expansion” that would be one of the defining themes of 19th century American history.
Yet even with all that to come, young E.I. du Pont had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of adventure.
His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont, was an influential figure in France. Pierre’s many roles included publisher, economist and advisor to the monarch, Louis XVI.
Inspired at a Young Age
Pierre was also a friend of Antoine Lavoisier, who came to be known as “the father of modern chemistry.” And so, in 1785 at age 14, E.I., demonstrating an early interest in science, became an apprentice to Lavoisier at the French government agency responsible for the manufacturing of gunpowder.
Before this period, gunpowder was produced by artisans who measured out ingredients by feel, explains Thomas Apel, a research fellow with the Chemical Heritage Foundation.1 But around this time, the French government wanted to replace this method and instead, take an approach based on scientific reasoning. They turned to Lavoisier, who was earning great acclaim for changing chemistry from a qualitative to quantitative discipline, to do so.
“The typical chemistry student in this period would sit in a classroom and watch his professor perform experiments,” Apel says. “In contrast, du Pont would have been working at a well-organized, well-staffed chemical enterprise devoted to all facets of gunpowder. There was nothing else at the time that has this level of chemical endeavor that was so well-organized.”
Irénée du Pont2, Jr., E.I.’s great grandson, said that Louis XVI required Lavoisier to build his own house in the middle of the gunpowder plant to ensure he always kept safety in mind. The apprentice lived in the same house, meaning that safety was on the top of E.I.’s mind as well.
After E.I. du Pont left the French gunpowder plant, his interest in science, particularly botany, continued to flourish.
Norman B. Wilkinson, author of the book “E.I. du Pont, Botaniste,” details E.I.’s impressive work ethic and devotion to rigid scientific principles. E.I. would rise at 5 a.m. to get to a 6 a.m. botany class, where he “took scrupulous notes during the three hours of lectures and demonstrations.” Then he hurried to his job managing his father’s printing business by 9:30. After work, E.I. would transcribe his rough notes into neater, more legible ones.
Political & Social Upheaval in France
Soon, though, tumultuous events would interrupt his scientific studies. The 1790s in France were dominated by the French Revolution, a period of ideological, political and social upheaval. Both Louis XVI and E.I.’s former mentor, Antoine Lavoisier, were executed by the revolutionaries. Pierre, as a former advisor to the king, nearly suffered the same fate.
While Pierre and E.I. spent a night in a French prison, their home and printing presses were ransacked. After their release, the family moved to the United States along with other French émigrés.
The du Pont family played a key role in those early days of the U.S. In mid-April 1800, Thomas Jefferson, who was then vice president of the young country, asked for Pierre du Pont’s suggestions3 on what branches of science should be incorporated into the curriculum in American schools. Later, Pierre helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase from France.
Change of Plans
E.I., whose passport listed his profession as “botany,” had originally thought to devote those talents to landscaping the public buildings and estates sprouting up in the fast-growing country, according to Wilkinson. But he realized there were greater opportunities in the emerging nation for better gunpowder, since the powder in the U.S. at the time was both expensive and of poor quality.
In the 1780s and 1790s, Americans were enthusiastic about French chemical notions, particularly their theories on the forces of nature behind chemistry, Apel says. By the time du Pont reached Delaware in the early 1800s, that popularity had declined.
“People were suspicious of the philosophy of chemistry,” Apel says. “But they were very interested in the applied aspects of the science that could be used to fuel the expansionist hopes of the U.S.”
In 1803, E.I. du Pont established E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. on the banks of the Brandywine River, instituting many of the principles he learned as an apprentice to the father of modern chemistry. E.I. used the most advanced technology to make powder4 with charcoal made from local willow trees, sulfur, saltpeter shipped in on the Delaware River, and water power controlled by French water wheels and turbines.
He instituted the same safety practices he had learned many years before too, building his own residence on a hill just a few hundred yards away from the machinery that was making the powder. “And they had a very good record” for safety, notes his great grandson. Company rules dictated “workers must wear shoes without nails to avoid sparks and are made to turn out their pockets to show they aren’t carrying matches.”
The quality of the powder that his company produced was quickly apparent. In 1811, Thomas Jefferson5 wrote du Pont asking to purchase gunpowder to remove rocks from his Monticello estate, noting that the powder sold locally was “wretched.”
That year, du Pont’s company became the largest manufacturer of gunpowder in the U.S. The War of 1812 boosted demand for their product even more, and afterwards large amounts of powder were needed to blast open coal mines and build roads, canals, and railroads as the country expanded.
After spending some years back in France, E.I.’s father returned to America in 1815. “Pierre was astonished at his son’s success and proclaimed him ‘a great man.’”6
du Pont spent 32 years as the president of the company that bears his name. And throughout that time his interest in science continued. He’d roam the woodlands near his home, collecting seeds he sent to botanists and foresters in France. He became fascinated with cross-breeding, and conducted experiments in hybridization.
du Pont’s devotion to science and agriculture live on today in the company he founded, which is devoted to solving the world’s biggest challenges with a rigorous approach to world-class science and engineering.