Joseph Labovsky

Born: September 10, 1912 | Kiev, UA
Died: March 24, 2013 | Wilmington, DE, US

Joseph Labovsky begins his oral history with a discussion of his family and early life in Ukraine, as well as his recollection of his family's move to the United States. Labovsky was trained as a master electrician, and went on to receive a bachelor's degree in industrial chemical engineering. Labovsky speaks at length about his career at DuPont, including the development of nylon and his mentors and colleagues, including Wallace Carothers and Paul Flory.

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0148
No. of pages: 53
Minutes: 148

Interview Sessions

John Kenly Smith, Jr.
24 July 1996
Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

Joseph Labovsky opens the interview with a discussion of his childhood in Ukraine and his family experiences there after his father emigrated to the United States in 1914. Labovsky moved with his mother and siblings to Komarine, a village adjacent to Chernobyl on the Dnieper River, where the family survived the Communist Revolution, civil war, famine, and a pogrom which killed fifteen of the twenty Jewish families there. In 1922, Labovsky's father was able to locate the family and make arrangements for a safe escape through Eastern Europe to the United States. Labovsky describes childhood interactions with the Polish and Red Armies in Komarine; impressions of settling in Wilmington, Delaware, where his father was a successful tailor; resuming his early education; and learning English. Next, Labovsky discusses his high school graduation and his father's successful efforts to secure him a job at DuPont, where he began working as lab assistant for Dr. Wallace Carothers' research group. He reflects upon his experiences and perceptions of early nylon work. Labovsky also looks back on his relationships with other scientists, particularly his mentor Carothers who directed him towards a DuPont college scholarship. In 1930, Labovsky began training at Bliss Electrical College but transferred after one year to the Pratt Institute, where he earned a degree in industrial chemical engineering. In 1934, he graduated and, after struggling in the Depression-era job market, happily accepted an offer to return to Carothers' research group and nylon development work. The interview continues as Labovsky details both the research group's work testing polymers and discovering polymer 66, and differences in the work environments under Carothers and, later, George Graves. After a discussion of work to develop the fiber 66 commercial process, Labovsky shares recollections of Carothers and the circumstances surrounding his untimely death in 1937. Throughout the second half of the interview, he chronicles the commercial development and success of nylon, providing details on spinning, drawing, quality control, and commercial processing. Labovsky describes problems and solutions in the history of nylon, including his War Production Award and three-part “A” bonus for reducing nylon waste through procedures to repair spinnerets during the Korean War. He describes his career path from laboratory technician to process control foreman to management training specialist for DuPont International--emphasizing the importance of troubleshooting, problem solving, and standard practice procedures throughout. The interview closes with comments on safety in nylon production and DuPont's overall safety record. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1931 Bliss Electrical School Master Electrician
1934 Pratt Institute BS Industrial Chemical Engineering
1936 University of Pennsylvania Chemistry, Psychology, and German

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1930
Summer Chemist Helper
1934 to 1937
Laboratory Technical Assistant
1937 to 1938
Foreman, Nylon Semi-Works
1938 to 1939
Shift Supervisor, Nylon Pilot Plant
1939 to 1941
Process Control Foreman, Seaford, Delaware, Nylon Plant
1941 to 1955
Quality Control Supervisor, Spinneret Laboratory Supervisor, and Textile Area Supervisor
1955 to 1963
Training Supervisor, Textile Research Laboratory
1963 to 1969
Management Training Specialist
1969 to 1975
Training and Industrial Relations Supervisor
1975
Retired

SNIA viscosa

1975 to 1979
Consultant, SNIA viscosa, Italy
1975 to 1979
Consultant, SNIA viscosa, Ireland
1975 to 1979
Consultant, SNIA viscosa, Montefibre, Italy
1975 to 1979
Consultant, Montedison, Italy

Diamond Shamrock Corporation

1975 to 1979
Consultant, Diamond Shamrock, France
1980 to 1985
Retired
1996
Retired

NILIT Ltd.

1985 to 1995
Consultant

Honors

Year(s) Award
1941

War Production Board Commendation

1997

Wilmington High School, Graduate Wall of Fame

Table of Contents

Childhood in Ukraine and United States
1

Early life in Ukraine. Father leaving Russia for United States. Family's experiences during World War I, Communist Revolution, and Russian Civil War. Family surviving pogrom. Family rejoining father in United States, settling in Wilmington, Delaware. Additional memories of Ukraine. Early schooling in United States and graduation from Wilmington High School.

Early Career at DuPont and College Education
13

Working for DuPont, assisting Dr. Wallace Carothers with laboratory work during the Depression. Setting up equipment for experiments, other responsibilities. Discussions with Carothers about music and literature. Receiving scholarship fund from Lammot duPont, president of DuPont. Enrolling in Bliss Electrical College. Studying industrial chemical engineering and graduating from Pratt Institute. Returning to work with Dr. Carothers' research group.

Development of Nylon
19

Working with Dr. D. D. Coffman, testing polymers. Polymer 66 discovered and developed. Working with Dr. Paul J. Flory. Changes in work atmosphere with Dr. George Graves supervising research group. Dr. Carothers' trip to London for Michael Faraday Society Lecture. Creation of manufacturing group to develop Fiber 66 commercial process. Friction between manufacturing and research groups. Recollections of Dr. Carothers' life and death. Challenges in manufacturing nylon. Discussion of nylon spinning, drawing, and quality control testing. Effects of World War II and getting nylon to commercial production. First commercial nylon plant opening in Seaford, Delaware.

Later Career at DuPont
35

Assignment to plant process control. Transfer to DuPont's second nylon plant in Martinsville, Virginia. Problems encountered in making nylon—including sizing and personnel problems—and solutions. Writing troubleshooting manual. Receiving War Production Award. Production problems during Korean War. Three-part "A" Bonus for repairing damaged spinnerets and promotion to production area manager. Transfer to DuPont International (DISA) in Geneva, Switzerland. Comments on safety in nylon production.

About the Interviewer

John Kenly Smith, Jr.

John Kenly Smith, Jr., is an associate professor of history at Lehigh University, where he has been a faculty member since 1987. He coauthored Science and Corporate Strategy: DuPont R&D, 1902–1980, published in 1988. He served with the DuPont R&D History Project from 1982 to 1986 and was Newcomen Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School from 1986 to 1987. He received the Newcomen Prize in Business History for Best Book Published in America and is on the editorial board of American Chemical Society Books.