Major companies such as Dow Corning and Union Carbide can trace their histories to discoveries at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research in Oakland.
Brothers Andrew W. and Richard B. Mellon created the center in March 1913, at a time when most companies didn’t have their own research labs. The investors envisioned a center where businesses could pay scientists to work on new ideas.
Products ranging from antifreeze and synthetic rubber to casings that allow hot dogs to be mass produced were developed early in the institute’s history, and the bouncy toy Silly Putty was an accidental discovery.
The American Chemical Society will honor the center on Thursday as a National Historic Chemical Landmark during an event that’s open to visitors.
“The greatest significance of Mellon Institute was to teach industry in the U.S. the importance of research,” said Tom Barton, the society’s president-elect and professor emeritus of organic chemistry at Iowa State University.
Talented researchers were sent to the institute on fellowships to work on specific problems for at least a year.
Later, corporations built their own centers such as Bell Laboratories in New Jersey and Dupont Central Research in Delaware, which had their heydays in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. Mellon Institute merged with Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1967 to form Carnegie Mellon University in 1967.
Many industries in recent years have cut back or given up on large research operations, possibly “to their peril,” said Barton, who will be at Thursday’s event.
Robert Kennedy Duncan, a science writer and professor whose book “The Chemistry of Commerce” inspired the Mellons to establish the institute, became its first director.
“He pushed the idea that universities should do research to benefit industry,” said Guy C. Berry, a CMU professor emeritus of chemistry and onetime senior fellow, or team leader at the institute.
“The Mellons saw this. They were entrepreneurs” who invested in Gulf Oil Co. and the Aluminum Company of America, later Alcoa Inc., Berry said. “They had experience making money by backing new ideas.”
Duncan died unexpectedly in 1914, but the institute continued to grow and by the 1920s it became self-supporting and no longer needed financial support from the Mellons.
A two-story wooden building on Bayard Street, on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, was the institute’s first home, followed by what now is Pitt’s Allen Hall.
The current, eight-story institute, which architect Benno Janssen modeled after the Acropolis with 62 massive limestone columns, opened in 1937. Inside, Greek alchemy symbols adorn the aluminum elevator doors off the ornate marble lobby.
Mellon Institute researchers registered 1,600 patents, and many of their finds impact today’s products. Some examples:
• Dow Corning employed Earl L. Warrick to look into silicone as a lubricant and as rubber substitute in the 1940s, when the U.S. worried the Japanese would cut off natural rubber supplies. His team created silicone rubber that became a key material used in World War II, and started a new industry.
Along the way, Warrick also mixed up a strange, bouncy substance. By 1959, Dow Corning was making 20,000 pounds of Silly Putty a week.
• Union Carbide bought Prest-O-Lite, a company that had an institute fellowship to study acetylene used in lighting, in 1917. The work led to versions of ethylene used as antifreeze and insecticide, and in vinyls, cosmetics and other products. Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemical in 2001.
• Mattress maker Simmons recruited students for a sleep study from 1924 to 1932 in an eight-bedroom suite, while researchers noted how they changed postures through the night.
• Research fellows working from 1916 to 1926 settled on cellulose made in a seamless tube as a good substitute for the animal intestines typically used as sausage casings.
This “really revolutionized the hot dog industry,” said Janet M. Riley, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, because cellulose casings allow high-speed production of uniform-sized hot dogs.
“We still make natural casing wieners, but they are less than 5 percent” of the 20 billion hot dogs sold each year in the U.S., she said.
Mellon Institute’s interior layout promoted isolation, to help keep industrial secrets safe, Berry said, although a common services area performed tasks such as distilling solvents. The library was, and is, open around the clock.
Researchers put in long hours and most wore white lab coats that were washed in a basement laundry — part of a project to improve commercial laundry equipment, he said.
“We were very collegial,” he said of the 300 scientists, technicians and others who worked there. A Mellon Institute Chorus performed yearly, and researchers took breaks by playing cards and billiards in the RKD Club Room, named for Duncan.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway became the institute’s chairman in 1955.
He and chemist Paul J. Flory, one of four institute researchers who would win Nobel prizes, shifted the center’s focus toward more federally funded research along with company-sponsored research.
Russia’s launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957 “prompted a lot of people to think that something had to be done to upgrade science and technology” in the U.S., Berry said.
Berry said by the time he began work there in 1960, “The institute still had a very healthy bottom line and a lot of companies were here, including some big ones” such as Gulf, U.S. Steel and Dow Corning.
Flory’s work, and the reputations of several other scientists there, were familiar to him. “It was like walking into a textbook,” he said of his arrival.
Major, corporate-sponsored research projects waned as the institute became part of the university, and today the building houses CMU’s chemistry and biological sciences departments along with research centers for neuroscience and other fields.
Berry retired in 2000 as chemistry department chairman, and maintains an eighth-floor office.
Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or [email protected].