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du Pont, Éleuthère Irénée - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Éleuthère Irénée du Pont

business powder gunpowder pont’s

(1771-1834)
E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

Overview

Generations of men and women have contributed to the development of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, which grew from a single gunpowder mill on Brandywine Creek to an international giant. But the company’s start, as well as its heart and soul, are attributable to one man, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, who was shaped by the revolutionary period of France in the late eighteenth century and came to America as a refugee.

Personal Life

Éleuthère Irénée du Pont was born in Paris, France, on June 24, 1771, to Pierre Samuel du Pont and Nicole Charlotte Marie Le Dee. In Greek his names signify the ideals of honor, liberty, and peace. Du Pont’s father was a noble, granted his position after having served the corrupt French throne for many years. His mother died when du Pont was 14 years old. Along with his older brother, Victor, du Pont grew up at Bois-des-Fosses, a family estate 60 miles south of Paris, and was schooled by private tutors.

The young du Pont was heavily influenced by the momentous politics of his time. He grew up during the harsh and oppressive political atmosphere of France during the days of Louis XIV and the angry mobs of the revolution, who used the guillotine liberally. His final days in France saw the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte. Pierre du Pont was politically active, sharing the title of commander of the National Guard with the Marquis de Lafayette. Du Pont aligned himself politically with his father who, along with Lafayette, was a conservative who promoted a constitutional monarchy.

A good friend of du Pont’s father, Antoine Lavoisier, was chief of the royal powder works and, in 1788, du Pont started to train with him at Essonnes. This is where he gained the basic knowledge that he would eventually use to establish his own business in America. Lavoisier also taught du Pont about the scientific method and instilled in him a lifelong interest in botany and scientific agriculture.

In 1791, at the age of 20, du Pont married Sophie Madeleine Dalmas; the two would eventually have seven children. The same year, Lavoisier lost his directorship of the powder works and du Pont had to leave Essonnes. He went to Paris, where he took charge of the printing house his father had established to promote his political point of view.

On August 10, 1792, the du Ponts led a 60-man private guard to defend the king’s palace from an assault by radicals dedicated to ending the monarchy. The success of this action did not change the inevitable, however, and the French revolution saw the king and du Pont’s friend and mentor, Antoine Lavoisier, guillotined. Pierre du Pont also was arrested, but was granted his freedom by Robespierre and escaped the guillotine.

Du Pont had been attempting to make a living with the publishing house, but it was wrecked by a mob during the revolution. The newspaper he produced was a revolutionary-theme publication, and the times were still precarious. His father’s new newspaper, L’Historien, supported reviving the monarchy and opposed Napoleon. When Napoleon came to power in a coup, both du Pont and his father were imprisoned. Fortunately, they were released, but only upon pledging to leave France. The du Pont family arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, on December 31, 1800, and it was in the United States that Éleuthère du Pont would thrive.

Du Pont had a strong interest in agriculture, was active in the American Colonization Society, and became a director of the Bank of the United States in 1822. He died on October 31, 1834, in Philadelphia. Du Pont was succeeded in his business first by his oldest son, Alfred, and then following Alfred’s death by his second son, Henry.

Career Details

Shortly after arriving in America, the du Ponts moved to New York. Du Pont’s father had planned to develop land in western Virginia, but was advised to delay his land investments. His father then started a commission business in New York City, but it was not successful. Éleuthère du Pont then happened upon an idea that was much more profitable. On a hunting trip with Colonel Louis de Toussard, an American military officer, du Pont discovered that American gunpowder was not only poor in quality but high in price. They made a study of the powder industry in America and concluded that the construction of a powder mill might be a profitable business, since gunpowder was a much needed commodity. The people settling the American frontier required protection from Indians and wild animals. Settlers hunted for meat and skins, and gunpowder was used to clear land to build homes and roads. Du Pont saw a good market for gunpowder, and in 1801 returned to France for three months to secure financial support and machinery and designs for the manufacture of gunpowder.

On July 19, 1802, du Pont purchased land on Brandywine Creek near Wilmington, Delaware, the site of America’s first cotton mill. Naming the plant Eleutherian Mills, in honor of freedom, du Pont set about building his first gunpowder factory. He moved his family close to the plant and persisted in building it as quickly as possible despite hardships, the most major of which was lack of capital. Du Pont was forced to take a partner, Peter Bauduy, an established businessman, in order to obtain enough money to start his business. Thus du Pont supplied the technical knowledge and management skills for the plant, while Bauduy, along with du Pont’s father, supplied the capital.

The small mill began processing saltpeter for the government in 1803; in the spring of 1804, the first du Pont gunpowder was sold. Thomas Jefferson, then president, promised du Pont that the government would place orders with him, and du Pont became a principal supplier of gunpowder to the federal government. He also sold large amounts of supplies to the American Fur Company and to South American countries. In the first year of business, du Pont sold $10,000 worth of powder; by 1807 annual sales were up to $43,000. By 1815, du Pont was able to buy out his partner and run the business on his own. Du Pont, always loyal to his family, was also able to make good on debts incurred by his brother and his father when the businesses they had started in America failed. He also started to diversify; in 1811, du Pont, his brother Victor, and Peter Bauduy bought a woolen mill on the Brandywine River. In addition, du Pont helped establish a cotton mill and a tannery.

Du Pont spent 32 years as the president of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company at the mills on Brandywine Creek and became one of the most innovative and successful industrialists of his day. Du Pont’s company is still in existence as one of the twentieth-century’s largest international conglomerates.

Social and Economic Impact

Following the teachings of his mentor, Antoine Lavoisier, and the scientific method he espoused, du Pont established technical, methodological, and ethical principles to which the company adheres to this day. Du Pont gave careful attention to raw material preparation. He used charcoal made from willow trees, because these trees always grew new branches and thus were a renewable resource. Saltpeter (a white powder ingredient used to make gun powder) was always thoroughly cleaned in de Pont’s mills, no matter what the state of cleanliness of the material when it arrived. Sulfur was not used unless pure and clear in color.

Du Pont installed a labor-saving device for kerneling of the powder. He always sought means to improve his methods and the quality of his product, regardless of the state of the economy or the success of the business. One hundred and fifty years before they became buzz words in American business, du Pont was pursuing quality, product, and process improvement. Du Pont also began a trend toward what has become known as vertical integration, knowing that a company’s income can be enlarged through diversification and that by growing the grain for his transport horses on company land, he could increase profits.

Du Pont was also a man of exemplary ethics. Influenced by the events of the French revolutionary period in which he was raised, as well as by a devout mother, he lived his personal life by a strict code. He also carried this code of ethics into his business and required the company to act accordingly. In March 1818, for example, his mills were ruined by an explosion that killed 40 men. Even though there were no laws to require it and the business practices of the day did not point this way, du Pont took it upon himself to compensate the families of the victims. He pensioned the widows, gave them homes, and took responsibility for the education and medical care of the surviving children. This action and the rebuilding of the plant required additional borrowing by the company, but du Pont’s moral consciousness was his priority. This same sense of morality fostered his belief that quality was a matter of pride, and there would be no compromises made on quality.

Du Pont’s impact was much more than the creation of a family business. The traditions espoused by his code of conduct and business honor carry through to this day. His guiding principle was that privilege was inextricably bound to duty. His sense of obligation to his customers was quite different from the norms of business in his time. Many times, he risked his business and his personal fortunes in order to fulfill a pledge or an obligation. His moral consciousness and technological ingenuity were precursors to business precepts of this century.

Chronology: Éleuthère Irénée du Pont

1771: Born.

1791: Began training with Lavoisier at powder works.

1791: Took over father’s printing house in Paris.

1800: Emigrated to America.

1802: Founded his own powder works.

1804: Sold first supply of powder.

1812: Became principal supplier of gunpowder to U.S. government.

1815: Bought out partner.

1834: Died.

The legacy of du Pont includes a commitment to technological innovations and increased productivity, never at the expense of quality products. Du Pont’s business methods and code, which originated in the turbulence of the French revolution and were honed in the Brandywine Mills, still guide the du Pont Company today. The du Pont family empire spans the globe and has holdings in real estate, arms and defense industries, computers, communications, media, utilities, oil, food industries, banks, aviation, chemicals, rubber, insurance, and many other businesses.

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