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Innovation Day

This guest editorial is by Arnold Thackray, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

by Arnold Thackray
September 13, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 37

Tomorrow in Philadelphia, a revolution will be launched. Breaking a 98-year tradition, the chemical industry’s most prestigious award, the SCI Perkin Medal, will appear in a fresh context—that of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Warren G. Schlinger Symposium and the new SCI Gordon E. Moore Medal. The whole event—Innovation Day—not only will focus on the rich heritage of chemical creativity, but also will highlight the crucial significance of young innovators. For the first time, CEOs and CTOs will be joined by many scores of young industrial innovators from across the land—those on whom we depend for the future of the chemical industry. Some background is in order.

In the spring of 1856, 18-year-old William Henry Perkin was in his lab attempting to synthesize quinine. Instead, he created the first synthetic dyestuff: aniline purple, or mauve. Realizing the significance of what he had done, Perkin moved quickly to patent his invention and to establish its commercial possibilities. Not only that, but he risked the family fortune to set up a manufacturing plant, and all the while continued his seminal research.

Half a century later, Sir William Henry Perkin was honored across the world: in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. Leaders of world commerce and culture had come to realize that science-based research is the key to industrial innovation. This “invention of the method of invention” was the 19th century’s greatest achievement. Nowhere was it better understood than in the chemical industry. In Germany, the size, prosperity, and steady growth of BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst offered elegant testimony to its power. In the U.S., corporations such as DuPont and General Electric heard the message and launched research laboratories.

In that same year of 1906, the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) established a medal in Perkin’s name to honor those who combined research with commercial success. The first medal was given to Perkin himself. The roster of subsequent Perkin Medalists provides testimony to the growing range, vitality, and significance of the chemical sciences and industry in 20th-century America. J. B. Francis Herreshoff and sulfuric acid, Charles Hall and aluminum, Herman Frasch and sulfur, Herbert H. Dow and bromine—here is brilliant innovation in the basic chemicals industry. Variations rapidly appear: Leo Baekeland and Bakelite; Irving Langmuir and the electric lightbulb; followed in recent years by Edwin Land and the Polaroid camera; Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar; and the pharmaceutical innovations of Lewis Sarett, Paul Anderson, and Carl Djerassi.

Against this background, SCI might be forgiven for resting on its laurels. Instead, in a bold new initiative, SCI is simultaneously honoring Moore—the most important industrial chemist of the second half of the 20th century—and establishing a new medal every bit as significant as the Perkin Medal itself.

Today we live in an information age. Computers and the World Wide Web are transforming our lives. “Moore’s law” deftly describes the remorseless pace of change. What is less well recognized is that Moore is a chemist and that he said, “The semiconductor industry” like Intel Corp., the company he cofounded, “is a chemical industry” (see page 25).

It is, therefore, entirely fitting that the 2004 Perkin Medal be awarded to Moore and that his name be given to a medal that recognizes the accelerating pace of innovation and global competition. The new SCI Gordon E. Moore Medal honors a researcher under 45 years old whose innovation is a commercial success. The first recipient will be George Barclay of Rohm and Haas, who is responsible for a new class of polymers used to make deep-ultraviolet photoresists. His innovation has led to smaller cell phones, more powerful computers, and improvements to many other familiar devices.

Innovation Day brings together young innovators from across the chemical industry for a full day of learning with their peers. At lunch, Moore will present the first medal bearing his name. Like Barclay, both Perkin and Moore would qualify for the new award as innovators who took their ideas to commercial success while young. The chemical industry, competently understood, remains young—ceaselessly renewed by the unexpected—a revolutionary engine of creativity for the good of all mankind.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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