The 20th century began with promise and turmoil: the Wright brothers' flight, Marconi's radio, the Russo-Japanese War, the Panama Canal.
1902 held bright promise for five businessmen in Two Harbors, Minn. They started Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) to mine what they thought was corundum, a mineral ideal for making sandpaper and grinding wheels. The mineral, however, turned out to be a low-grade anorthosite. Sales of the poor-quality mineral were weak and the company nearly failed — but its founders persisted.
They persevered by closing the mine, moving to Duluth, Minn., and making sandpaper with abrasive minerals purchased from another source. These actions required money, so 3M stockholder Edgar B. Ober convinced St. Paul businessman Lucius P. Ordway to come to the company's rescue.
In 1907, 3M hired a 20-year-old business student,
William L. McKnight as assistant bookkeeper. The hardworking redhead went
on to become 3M's president and first chairman of the board. His leadership
and vision would shape much of the company's future.
Halley's comet flashed across the sky. This was the era of the Titanic, a worldwide influenza epidemic, World War I and Isadora Duncan.
3M moved from Duluth, Minn., to St. Paul, Minn. William L. McKnight, now sales manager, encouraged 3M sales representatives to get into their customers' shops and talk with the workers who actually used 3M abrasives. This "customer research" led to many product and service improvements.
Following a nearly disastrous quality problem, 3M invested $500 in a tiny laboratory. It was a lot of money for the young company, but a wise step toward ensuring quality control and an early investment in research and development.
3M™ Three-M-ite™ Abrasive Cloth was 3M's first "exclusive" product. With its flexibility and metal-cutting superiority, it became a best seller with automakers and repair shops. In 1916, 3M was free of debt and paid its first dividend. "There are a lot of people who thought we'd never make it," said Edgar Ober, president. By 1917, 3M sales reached $1 million. The company was poised for real growth.
During the turbulent '20s, jazz ruled, the League of Nations was established, Ford introduced the 40-hour workweek and Gandhi rose as a political force in India.
In 1921, 3M bought the rights to 3M™ Wetordry™ Waterproof Sandpaper from Philadelphian Francis Okie. This product could be used with water or oil to reduce dust and decrease the friction that marred auto finishes. It revolutionized the sandpaper industry.
While testing abrasive samples at a body shop, Richard Drew, a 3M lab assistant, noted that painters were having trouble masking car parts. He got an idea that led to the invention of masking tape. The tape was a hit and the Scotch® brand Tape product line was born; so was 3M's growing emphasis on product diversity.
In 1929, 3M formed a holding company in Europe with eight other abrasives manufacturers. The Durex Corp., an American holding company, was 3M's first international business and expanded its opportunities for growth. With sales four times higher than at the beginning of the decade, 3M headed into a challenging new era.
This was a decade of contrasts. From the Great Depression to FDR and the New Deal, the Chicago World's Fair and the Berlin Olympics. The end of the decade would see the beginnings of global upheaval.
Thanks to sound fiscal policies, 3M was a Depression-era phenomenon. The company expanded sales, employment and facilities — and paid dividends every year. Even before Social Security was enacted in the United States, 3M created benefit programs that gave workers a sense of well-being.
Richard Drew saw another customer need. Cellophane was popular, but there was no attractive way to seal the clear material. He coated samples of cellophane with 3M adhesive. Scotch® Cellophane Tape was born, and soon hundreds of practical uses were discovered.
In 1937, Richard P. Carlton, vice president, established a Central Research Laboratory to pursue research in technologies with long-term potential. This led to 3M breakthroughs, such as reflective materials used to improve highway signs and markings.
As the decade ended, 3M had five diverse and flourishing businesses: abrasives, masking tape, cellophane tape, roofing granules and adhesives.
World War II and its aftermath shaped the '40s, launching the Atomic Age and the Marshall Plan. Penicillin appeared, and so did television in living black and white.
The decade brought many changes to 3M. During the war, automobile production halted. 3M sales representatives sought new customers. They found hundreds of industrial uses to expand their adhesives business. Industry's increased use of machinery in wartime continued afterward, increasing demand for abrasives. 3M product innovations ranged from nonwoven materials to vinyl electrical tape. 3M™ Sound Recording Tape, spurred by singer Bing Crosby's interest and promotion, revolutionized the entertainment industry.
In 1946, 3M stock was listed for the first time on the New York Stock Exchange.
William L. McKnight, president, offered his management philosophy to guide the company. His belief in encouraging individual initiative, risk-taking and the freedom to fail, enabled 3M to manage many diverse businesses and continue steady growth.
The '50s was an era of the Cold War, the Korean War and postwar recovery in Europe and Japan. England crowned Queen Elizabeth II. Edmund Hillary conquered Mt. Everest. The Salk vaccine conquered polio.
3M introduced its first stock purchase plan for employees, established the 3M Foundation to expand its philanthropic programs and dedicated the first building at 3M Center in St. Paul, Minn., to house the Central Research labs.
The Durex Corp. was disbanded and 3M started its own International Division to expand its global operations. The division started with a nucleus of companies in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom.
An idea from three surgeons for an adhesive-backed surgical drape led to 3M's growing involvement in health care. Other new 3M products ranged from electrical connectors to Scotchgard® Fabric Protector, Scotch® Commercial Videotape and Scotch-Brite™ Scouring Pads.
The 1960s began with Camelot and ended with Vietnam. It was a tumultuous decade that included the Beatles and construction of the Berlin Wall, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the Concorde's first test flight.
In 1962, the first office building was completed at 3M Center in St. Paul, Minn., the company's new world headquarters.
Spurred by the idea that products developed to fit local needs would be most successful, 3M continued to expand international operations. The company's first research laboratory outside the United States opened in Harlow, England, in 1963.
There were other milestones. After 60 years with the company, William L. McKnight retired and was named Chairman Emeritus. The Carlton Society was created to honor outstanding technical employees. It was named for a former 3M President, Richard P. Carlton, who, in 1921, was hired as the company's first technical employee to hold a college degree.
In 1969, U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon wearing space boots with soles made of synthetic material from 3M. The company stood at the threshold of new growth.
During the '70s, the war in Vietnam ended, Margaret Thatcher became Britain's prime minister, U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations resumed and a Middle East peace conference took place.
3M's technology base continued to expand — and so did its businesses. 3M employees continued to find new ways to fulfill customer needs. The innovative new products they produced held automotive parts in place, fastened diapers, provided backup security for computers, gave dentists new filling materials, helped keep buildings clean, helped prevent theft of library books, and made insulated clothing less bulky and more comfortable.
3M inaugurated Pollution Prevention Pays (3P), a program that encourages employees throughout the company to prevent pollution at the source. It led to large reductions in pollution and waste in 3M's products, processes and daily operations. In 1972, 3M sales passed the $2 billion mark; by 1979, sales topped $5 billion. More challenges and more growth lay ahead.
The world faced rapid change in the '80s. American hostages were released in Iran. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was peacefully exiled. There was great churning in the world, glasnost in Russia and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The ongoing emphasis at 3M was on quality — continuous improvement in every aspectof its businesses, focusing on customer requirements.
Company businesses were realigned so they could work more closely in developing technologies, manufacturing capabilities and marketing efforts. 3M built its first U.S. research/administrative complex outside Minnesota. 3M Austin Center, in Austin, Texas, was established to position the company near other high-technology electronics and telecommunications businesses.
A 3M scientist used an adhesive that didn't stick to create "temporarily permanent" book markers — and a whole new product category. Post-it® Notes became a worldwide best seller.
A key characteristic of this decade is change: relationships within governments, between countries and among businesses; recession and unrest; the reunification of Germany; and the opening of vast Chinese markets.
In 1995, 3M announced it would launch its printing and publishing, data storage and imaging systems businesses as an independent, publicly owned company. At the same time, 3M began realigning into market-centered groups to focus on building customer loyalty by providing superior quality, value and service.
With operations in more than 60 countries, 3M is a major player in the global economy. International operations account for more than half of 3M's business and remain among its greatest opportunities for growth. Work continues on several corporate initiatives including reducing waste and pollution, improving productivity, reducing costs, and developing products more quickly and efficiently.
Microreplication technology made microscopic changes to the surface of materials — which changed how these materials worked. Borne out of overhead projectors, microreplication-based products are used in highly reflective highway signs, laptop computer screens and even 3M's first product — abrasives. A team of 3M scientists developed a new water-based version of Scotchgard™ Fabric Protector that contains no solvents. The team's leader? The son of one of the original Scotchgard fabric protector inventors — and a member of 3M's new generation of innovators.
For more than 100 years, 3M employees have worked to move the company forward. We are the key to ensuring that this new century will be an era of growth for 3M and for our customers.
Early in our company's history, William L. McKnight espoused a philosophy that focused on the importance of employee contributions. He encouraged management to empower employees and respect their contributions. That philosophy, which worked so well in the early years of 3M's history, will continue to guide us into the future.
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