Carnegie Mellon University

The Piper

CMU Community News

Piper Logo
March 13, 2013

Mellon Institute for Industrial Research To Be Designated National Historic Chemical Landmark

By Jocelyn Duffy

Mellon InstituteWorld War I gas masks. Synthetic rubber. Cellulose hot dog casings.

Most people know the Mellon Institute as the monolithic, columned-building on Fifth Avenue that is home to the Dean's Office for the Mellon College of Science, the departments of Biological Sciences and Chemistry, and a number of research centers. But there's much more to the Mellon Institute than the 75-year-old fortress that bears its name.

Founded in 1913 as a facility to create ties between science and industry, the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research has a rich history of innovation.  Researchers at the institute developed a wide range of products, such as those mentioned, and other work that launched the petrochemical industry and led to the founding of prominent companies including Dow Corning and Union Carbide corporations.

And, four researchers associated with the Mellon Institute have been awarded Nobel Prizes.

For the many accomplishments achieved there, the American Chemical Society (ACS) will designate the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at a ceremony at 3:30 p.m., Thursday, March 28, in the Mellon Institute Conference Room.

The ceremony will be followed by a panel discussion on scientific entrepreneurship that will include chemists from CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

In the early 1900s few manufacturing companies had laboratories dedicated to research and development. Brothers Andrew W. and Richard B. Mellon saw the challenges this posed first-hand through their interests in Pittsburgh-based businesses including the Aluminum Corporation of America.

Motivated by Robert Kennedy Duncan's 1907 book "The Chemistry of Commerce," the Mellon brothers established the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research in 1913.

In the book Duncan, who became the institute's first director, wrote:

"Everywhere, throughout America, wherever there is the smoke of a factory chimney, there are unsolved, exasperating, vitally important manufacturing problems ... It seems clear that these problems can best be answered by combining the practical knowledge and the large facilities of the factory with the new and special knowledge of the universities, and by making this combination through young men who will find therein success and opportunity."

The Mellon Institute was originally on the University of Pittsburgh's campus. It moved to the current building in 1937. The institute was renowned for its fellowship program that allowed industry to sponsor one or more researchers to work on solving a specific problem. For some companies, the Mellon Institute served as the company's sole research laboratory. For others, the work of the institute fellows and senior fellows complemented work being done in the company's own labs. 

In 1967, the institute merged with the Carnegie Institute of Technology to form Carnegie Mellon University, and continued to conduct research after the merger. Mellon Institute scientists contributed significantly to science and industry. They published more than 4,700 research papers and registered 1,600 patents.

The fellows and senior fellows created a number of inventions and processes still being used today including: chrome plating of aluminum; insecticides; butane gas for metal cutting operations; a dental cement; a mothproofing agent; a vanadium catalyst for production of sulfuric acid; new sanitary enamel; and a scuff-resistant shoe leather.

"The Mellon Institute was a workhorse of industrial research and training in America for more than 50 years," said Tom Barton, president-elect of the American Chemical Society. "The senior fellows and fellows of the Mellon Institute were both scientists and innovators, an altogether too rare combination. Through the results of their pioneering research, American industry became further sold on the practical benefits of science to develop new products, grow companies and solve essential problems. This produced an industrial dominance for the U.S., and its continuation will undoubtedly be the source of our bright economic future."

Today, researchers working within the walls of the Mellon Institute building and at area universities like CMU and Pitt, are carrying on the tradition of innovation that began in 1913.

"To this day we still search for ways to develop ties between industry and academia," said Guy C. Berry, Emeritus University Professor of Chemistry and former Mellon Institute senior fellow, who was part of the team who nominated the institute for landmark status on behalf of the ACS Pittsburgh Section. "The Mellon Institute may be 100 years old, but the mission set forth by its founders remains relevant to scientists today."

At the March 28 panel discussion scientists will discuss scientific entrepreneurship and research commercialization. Panelists will include CMU's J.C. Warner University Professor of Natural Sciences Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Maxwell H. and Gloria C. Connan Professor in the Life Sciences Alan Waggoner, Visiting Associate Professor John Belot, and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering Newell Washburn. Pitt panelists will be Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Sanford Asher and George M. Bevier Professor of Engineering Eric Beckman. Michelle Ward, a lecturer in Pitt's Department of Chemistry, will moderate the panel.

What: National Historic Chemical Landmark ceremony and panel discussion 
When: 3:30 p.m., Thursday, March 28
Where: Mellon Institute Conference Room

A historical photo from the Mellon Institute shows an unidentified scientist conducting work as part of a petroleum fellowship.