Camille and Henry Dreyfus: Overcoming Numerous Obstacles and Challenges

 

By Henry C. Walter
Comments at the First Awarding of the
Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences
September 30, 2009

 

I would like to say a few words about the early years of Camille and Henry Dreyfus and their persistence in overcoming numerous obstacles and challenges. Many years later Dr. Camille said, "The more troubles we had, the more we were successful - because we grew up on troubles and had learned to master them."

Born is Switzerland, the brothers were organic chemists who, after receiving their Ph.D degrees from the University of Basel, decided to focus their research on cellulose acetate, which was little more than a laboratory curiosity at the time, but in their view had unlimited potential.

In 1910, the brothers opened a factory in Basel to manufacture relatively safe acetate-based film to replace cellulose nitrate, the highly flammable and explosive compound then used for motion pictures. At the time, reports of fires and fatalities in motion pictures theatres using cellulose nitrate film or nitrous celeulous were common. For example, the New York Times of January 14,1908, reported 100 dead in a theatre fire.The first customer for the film was Pathe Freres, the motion picture pioneers.

Because of the low flammability of cellulose acetate, the company also supplied material to manufacturers of toilet articles, and dope to the fledgling aircraft industry to coat and stretch the fabric used to cover wings and fuselages.

But the brothers envisioned that this new material could be processed and spun into man-made fibers, a much larger potential market. By 1913, the brothers had worked out a feasible commercial process, and had samples of acetate fibers to show potential backers.

In 1914, the outbreak of World War I changed everything. The demand for cellulose acetate dope surged. The brothers first supplied the allies from their Swiss plant, but strategically the allies wanted adequate supplies within their own borders. So in response to requests and subsidies from the British and U.S. governments, the brothers built plants in Spondon, England, and Cumberland, Maryland. The war ended in 1918 before the Cumberland plant was completed, and the brothers ended up with two plants and no market for the end-product.

So in a corner of the shuttered Spondon plant the brothers resumed their research experiments with cellulose acetate. In 1920, they launched a public company with the stated intention of making artificial silk by the cellulose acetate process. There were obstacles to overcome. The new fiber could not be dyed by traditional dying methods nor woven by existing textile machinery. New methods had to be developed. The silk industry worked zealously to discredit acetate and discourage its use.

These obstacles were overcome, and the operation in England became British Celanese, and in the U.S. the Celanese Corporation of America. The companies, along with subsidiaries around the world, became large successful suppliers of not only fibers but also plastics and chemicals. By 1968, the Celanese Corporation of America had become the 70th largest U.S. corporation according to the Fortune 500 list.