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Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: Enter Du Pont

The Secret History of Lead: A Special Report from The Nation

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Enter Du Pont

In 1919 GM purchased Kettering’s Dayton research laboratory. The following year the company installed him as vice president of research of the renamed General Motors Research Corporation.

No longer the shambling, anarchic outfit it had been under the inveterate risk-taker W.C. Durant, GM was now to be run in the militarily precise mold of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company of Wilmington, Delaware. Awash in a sea of gunpowder profits from World War I, the du Pont family had been increasing its stake in GM since 1914. By 1920 it controlled more than 35 percent of GM shares and moved to pack the board, installing professional management, with the du Pont faction taking control of the corporation’s all-powerful finance committee.

Caught short by a margin call in the recession of 1920, Durant, GM’s colorful founder, lost his stake and was forced by the du Pont family to walk the plank (he would spend his final days running a bowling alley). One of the clan’s craftiest patriarchs, Pierre du Pont, was coaxed from retirement and named GM’s interim president; Alfred Sloan, who had demonstrated the coldhearted allegiance to the bottom line the du Ponts revered, became executive vice president preparatory to assuming the top slot. The pressure on all concerned, including Kettering and his research division, was to make money and to make it fast.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Sloan wrote to Kettering in September of 1920, alerting him to the du Ponts’ new math: “Although [the Research Corporation] is not a productive unit and a unit that is supposed to make a profit, nevertheless the more tangible result we get from it the stronger its position will be…. It may be inferred at some future time…that we are spending too much money down there [in Dayton] and being in a position to show what benefits had accrued to the corporation would strengthen our position materially.”

That time would come soon enough for Kettering to deliver. An air-cooled engine he’d championed—copper-cooled, he called it—would soon prove a costly disaster for GM. Fortunately for him, immediately after joining GM he had given his trusted assistant Midgley two weeks to find something to ignite the new management’s interest in funding continued fuel research. Though it would take somewhat longer than two weeks to fire their masters’ enthusiasm, “Midge” succeeded.

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