February 8, 2007

Du Pont

And the man behind the brand is...
Eleuthere Irenee du Pont

On a wet, blustery day in the winter of 1801 a French immigrant was invited on a hunting trip in the wooded, rolling hills south of Philadelphia. Time and again Eleuthere Irenee du Pont leveled his shotgun only to have the gun misfire.
The dampness of the air was ruining his gunpowder.

Eleuthere Irenee du Pont took little game that day but returned home with something more important: a business idea. The du Pont family, headed by his father and brother, had arrived in New Jersey a year earlier with intentions of being land speculators. Eleuthere Irenee, then 31 years old, listed his occupation on his passport as "botanist" and planned to work the land and do seed exchanges with other naturalists back in Europe.

But since their arrival the du Ponts had not prospered. Now Eleuthere Irenee saw an opportunity in gunpowder. He had studied with Antoinne Lavoisier, the French government’s chemist in charge of manufacturing gunpowder. Du Pont returned to France to bring back the technology necessary to launch his own black powder enterprise.

Du Pont rode up and down the east coast searching for a suitable location for his new mills. Eventually he returned to the site of his hunting trip several months earlier. The Brandywine River in northern Delaware was in a region central to the existing states. The Brandywine flowed swiftly generating abundant water power. The surrounding hills were blanketed with virgin timber which du Pont would use to make charcoal, one of the three ingredients needed to make black powder. And du Pont, who always struggled with the English language, drew comfort from a large French population in Wilmington at the time.

From the beginning a constant lack of operating capital precipitated one crisis after another for E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. President Thomas Jefferson, a family friend from his diplomatic days in France, supplied du Pont with encouragement and an occasional government order.

Du Pont's black powder immediately gained acceptance as a superior gunpowder and blasting powder for clearing stumps, digging canals and building roads. During the War of 1812 the United States Government became a regular customer and for a time the company grew into the young nation's largest industrial firm. But after the war there was excess capacity and highly leveraged idle mills.

Du Pont was a dour, responsible man who shouldered the burden of the family debts. Twice a week he dutifully made the 30-mile trip to Philadelphia to meet the obligations of his bank notes. Finally in 1834 du Pont paid off the last of his notes. He left the bank, walked around the corner and fell dead in the street.

Du Pont's sons built on the debt-free company their father had left them. Throughout the 19th century the company grew into America’s largest supplier of black gunpowder and dynamite. By 1905 the DuPont controlled 75% of the U.S. powder market.

After World War I DuPont moved swiftly to the forefront of new chemical applications and black powder, the product that forged the du Pont dynasty, took on a lesser role. The Brandywine Mills were dismantled in 1920. And while black powder is still an important industrial and military explosive the last of the DuPont black powder business was sold in 1972.

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