Most Americans, and many people around the world, are familiar with the huge American company commonly known as DuPont. But few know that the company was begun by a young Frenchman who liked things that exploded.
Éleuthère Irénée du Pont was born in Paris on June 24, 1771, the younger of two sons in the family. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, had been a watchmaker. He had also studied medicine, but in time he had become involved in economics and politics. Pierre du Pont was an aristocrat who held moderate views on the French monarchy. Such views were not popular with those supporting the French Revolution (1789-1799).
While he was a boy in France, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (often known as E.I., or Irénée) was far more interested in explosives than in the subjects his tutors attempted to teach him at his father’s estate. In his early teens, he wrote a report for his father about gunpowder. At age 14, he began study in the College Royal in Paris. Two years later, E.I. became a student of the famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, a friend of his father’s, at the French government agency that manufactured gunpowder. E.I. left the agency in 1791 to work in the publishing house his father had opened in Paris.
In the dangerous atmosphere of revolutionary Paris, Pierre and E.I. du Pont aided in the escape of King Louis XVI from a mob invading his palace in 1792. They barely escaped themselves as others in their group were killed. Not long after his printing presses were attacked by a Parisian mob in 1797, Pierre decided it was time to leave France for the United States. In 1799 the family sailed across the Atlantic, arriving in their new country on the first day of the new century. They set up a business office in New York City, though they were uncertain what type of business it would be.
While hunting with a friend, E.I. was amazed at the poor-quality but expensive gunpowder that was available in the United States. The family decided to use French techniques of gunpowder manufacture to start a business selling a better product in America. E.I. and his brother Victor traveled to France in 1801 to gather machinery and investment. The French government aided them, hoping to undercut the British supply of gunpowder to the United States. Helped by influential friends in America, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, E.I. du Pont broke ground for the firm that would bear his name on July 19, 1802. It was called E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, the formal name it retains today. Du Pont erected his gunpowder mill on Brandywine Creek, near Wilmington, Delaware. This mill formed the basis of Delaware’s great chemical industry, and the du Pont company eventually became the biggest supplier of explosives to the U.S. government.
Du Pont became a U.S. citizen in 1804, about the same time he was granted his first patent. His firm’s sales increased steadily from 1804 to 1811. In 1810, du Pont’s firm purchased land and expanded its facilities, just in time to take advantage of the demand for gunpowder in the War of 1812. After spending a number of years in France, E.I.’s father returned to America in 1815. Pierre was astonished at his son’s success and proclaimed him “a great man.” Along with gunpowder, E.I. became involved with the production of wool and cotton. In addition to his manufacturing work, E.I. served as a director of the Second Bank of the United States during the 1820’s, under his friend Nicholas Biddle, the bank’s president.
Du Pont suffered an apparent heart attack while in Philadelphia on business in 1834. He died the next day, on October 31. After his death, his company went on to produce explosives, lacquers, adhesives, plastics, synthetic fibers such as nylon, and many other products. Today DuPont is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and chemical products.