- Historic Sites
Your Problem Is Solved
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
The application of chemistry to commercial problems might seem obvious to us, but it was not obvious to most Americans in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The American Chemical Society was founded in 1876, and it had only 241 members when Griffin & Little was formed.
In those days, Little wrote later, “industry and science were comparative strangers, and industry had little desire for closer acquaintance. … In such a setting, the new laboratory stood like an outpost of pioneers in a forbidding land. For many years its essential business was that of blazing trails and inducing reluctant manufacturers to use them.”
A vivid example occurred early in the history of the firm. Griffin — Little had obtained an option for the American rights to a process for converting cellulose into a viscous liquid ( later given the name viscose) that chemists then could turn into nonflammable film and artificial silk.
With what he later described as the “destructive humility of chemists,” Little went to a number of bankers, including J. Pierpont Morgan and Bernard Baruch, in a vain effort to get the backing he needed to develop the patents.
“While every chemist will admit he needs a banker,” Little wrote later, “the fact that every banker needs a chemist is not yet recognized in financial circles. … It was the scarcity of educated money in this country in 1901 which caused the viscose patents for artificial silk to be sold at auction for $2,500, and which for many succeeding years diverted into English pockets the enormous profits of rayon manufacture in America.”
Little never tired of complaining about the waste that resulted from the failure to apply science to industry. In the years before World War I, he calculated, the practice of throwing away old pencil stubs cost the nation 150 million tons of wood, 1 million tons of flax straw, 13 million board feet of lumber, and 365 billion cubic feet of natural gas each year. “The United States,” he wrote, “is an aggregation of undeveloped empires, sparsely occupied by the most wasteful people in the world.”
Chemists will admit they need bankers, Little once said, but that bankers need chemists is not yet recognized.
Slowly the message got through. In 1911 a young company named General Motors hired ADL to organize its first research laboratory. Through most of the 1920s and 1930s, ADL drummed up enough work to support a staff of about fifty. It was not until 1944, nine years after Little’s death, that gross revenues reached a million dollars a year.
The firm gave good value for the money. For Hires, ADL came up with a substitute for sassafras and safrole when the government banned those ingredients in root beer. Cream of Wheat might never have found a huge market if ADL had not devised a technique to reduce its cooking time from one hour to five minutes. From ADL, the Great Southern Lumber Company learned that every day it was throwing away material that could be turned into 794 tons of paper, 60 tons of resin, 6,000 gallons of turpentine, and 12,000 gallons of ethyl alcohol.
The U.S. government has contracted with ADL for a great deal of military work. When the Chemical Warfare Service was created in 1918, it hired ADL to work on gas masks. Robert V. Kleinschmidt, an ADLer with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Harvard, developed in 1939 a still to convert salt water into fresh water. By the end of World War II, enough stills had been placed in service, mostly on submarines and with Marine Corps units, to provide ten million gallons of fresh water a day.
After the war ADL engineers designed the propellant-loading systems for the Atlas and Titan missiles, and ADL helped develop the Navy’s Trident program for submarine surveillance. For the Apollo program, ADL has worked on meteor bumpers for spacecraft, lubricants to enable telescopes on satellites to work for ten thousand hours, and a quartz thermometer to measure lunar temperature to within one-thousandth of a degree Fahrenheit.
ADL has been described by a summer intern from the Harvard Business School as “a kind of kindergarten where everybody is playing with his own blocks or finger paints”; by one of its senior managers as “a crazy place that’s also a supermarket of expertise”; and by the chairman of its board as “a floating flea market.” It has described itself as “the last place on earth where private enterprise really works.”
Making fun of experts is a popular sport. A trade journal, Consultants News , has defined a consultant as someone who is “brought in to find out what has gone wrong, by the people who made it go wrong, in the comfortable expectation that he will not bite the hand that feeds him by placing the blame where it belongs.” A consultant also has been defined as someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, someone who can tell you how to blow your nose better, and someone who knows a hundred ways to make love but doesn’t know any girls.
No doubt each of these definitions has its grain of truth, but it’s true, too, that a consultant may be someone who can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse or can fly a lead balloon. The balloon of lead foil that was launched by ADL staffers on May 16, 1977, was last seen heading east over the Atlantic, at a height of four thousand feet.