Carnegie Mellon University
October 04, 2019

Archives Digitize Decades of Mellon Institute Records

By Shannon Riffe

The University Libraries have organized and preserved 347 boxes of records from the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, one of the nation’s premier independent research centers, making the records more widely discoverable and available to researchers. 

For decades, companies without in-house “research and development” laboratories relied on the scientists and engineers of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Institute of Industrial Research to conduct cutting-edge scientific experimentation on their behalf. The building is now home to the Carnegie Mellon University Mellon College of Science.

Since its inception in 1913, through its dissolution in 2002, the Mellon Institute engaged the brightest scientific minds of its time to develop, test, and refine new chemical, biological, and materials science innovations on behalf of its corporate partners. In the process, the Institute defined the profession of sponsored research, spun off successful companies such as the Dow Corning and Union Carbide corporations, and developed industry-changing technologies. It also prepared hundreds of new scientists for careers in industrial research.  

Over 650 novel processes and products were invented or developed as a result of the Institute’s industrial fellowship program. Through this program – created by chemist and professor Robert Kennedy Duncan and financially supported by Pittsburgh financiers Andrew W. Mellon and Richard B. Mellon – the Institute solved the immediate needs of industry by employing trained scientists to investigate its problems. 

The resulting products made their way into common consumer items such as breakfast cereals, fertilizers, glues, inks, skinless hot dogs, frozen orange juice, razor blades, and fluoride, as well as groundbreaking developments such as gas masks used in World War I. The fellows also conducted numerous studies into Pittsburgh’s air quality issues and concerns surrounding the occupational health of lab and factory workers. Four researchers associated with the Mellon Institute have been awarded Nobel Prizes.

Project Archivist Emily Davis worked with colleagues in the Library’s Digitization Projects Division to scan and create metadata for two bodies of materials that tell the story of the Institute: Annual Reports from the years 1914-1967 and the Institute’s newsletters, “Toot-Toot” (1916 - 1917), “R.K.D. Bulletin” (1918 - 1919), “Mellon Institute News” (1937 - 1971), “RKD Club Columns” (1972-1974), and “Mellon Columns” 1975-1980. To make the content searchable, which enhances findability and improves accessibility, the Digitization Projects team also ran optical character recognition (OCR) software on all 26,800 pages to convert the printed text into digital text.

Both bodies of materials will give new insight into the operations of the Institute. The Annual Reports outline which companies sponsored the research and summarize the activities and accomplishments of each fellowship, while the newsletters provide a unique window into the culture of the Mellon Institute, containing information such as hirings, retirements, and rankings for the bowling and basketball teams, as well as updates from former scientists on marriages, deaths, and conference presentations. The first newsletter was published during WWI to keep members who were enlisted connected to the institute.

“No one has written a comprehensive history on the Mellon Institute, how it factored into the larger industrial research ecosystem or its contributions to science,” Davis said. “With the breadth of scientific and cultural news that are captured in these pages, these documents will be of interest to historians as well as people who want to learn about family members who worked there.” 

The newly scanned materials are available on the University Archives digital collections site

In celebration of the completion of this archiving project, the Libraries will present Behind the Columns: Celebrating the History and Legacy of the Mellon Institute on October 17, 4:30 p.m. in the Mellon Institute Library. The event will feature a round table discussion with Guy Berry, Professor Emeritus, Mellon College of Science, former Senior Fellow, Mellon Institute; Alberto Guzman, former Associate Director, Carnegie Mellon Research Institute; Brian Zande, former Scientist, Carnegie Mellon Research Institute moderated by Ellan Spero, historian of science and technology.