Chapter 2: Glories and Disasters in the Chemical Industry (1959-1965)

1. First Full Time Work
“You are an over performer, sir.” This was the verdict of an “employment psychologist” who had subjected me to a series of tests in the beginning of November 1959 in via della Moscova in Milan. I particularly remember the discussion concerning “Rorschach’s inkblot”. They show you a sheet of paper folded in two. Some ink is poured on one side and then the two sides are closed together so as to obtain a mirror image blot on the two halves of the paper. In that blot I had recognised the threatening atmosphere of the German Olympus, Valhalla, that serves as the background to Wagner’s epic, Nibelungen. I had described a large cave with Wotan, the head of the gods, and the Valkyrie. The particular inspiration for the account came to me from a comic strip that had just come out at that time, blacker and less amusing than Asterix which would be introduced some decades later, but nevertheless, entertaining enough to stimulate my imagination.
The psychologist had pronounced those words in a rather sharp tone, looking at me a little askance. Was the lack of understanding that had occurred during my meeting with another psychologist concerning the kilo of hay and the kilo of iron about to be repeated? Fortunately not. A few days later I received a letter of appointment from Montecatini whose foreign sales headquarters was just across the road. A short time later, on 15th November, I began my first official job.
At that time, Montecatini was a great Italian chemistry firm. It had already existed for some time and incorporated numerous mining businesses some traces of which still remain today: abandoned fields and villages in South East Sardinia that compete with the ghost towns of the Far West of the United States and elsewhere.
Like many large companies it had built up part of its power in the first half of the XX century, making the most of the patent for manufacturing nitric acid.
At that time, Montecatini dreamt of scoring a new success similar to those produced by the large European and American chemical companies when they had created new products such as nylon (“polyamide” in 1938), polyester, acrylic fibres, PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), polyethylene and others. By being the first on the market with these innovations – most of them came out in the twenty years following the Second World War − a fortune could be made, given that the margin between the manufacturing price per kilo and the sale price could be from one to ten or even more.
Obviously, the cost of research had to be taken into account. They had to be certain that new products had been tested and safe enough for wide industrial use, as much at the final consumer level as, and even more so, at the intermediate transformation level. It was in fact necessary to be able to convert these materials into fibres, sheets, cups for yoghurt, containers, bags of every kind, suited to their normal function. On the one hand these new products had allowed du Pont de Nemours, Péchiney-Saint Gobain, ICI and Courtauld, BASF and Monsanto to become great chemical industries, a similar phenomenon partially repeated over the last fifteen years in the computer and telephone sectors. On the other hand there was, for various reasons, no lack of failures. Some manufacturing processes did not deliver the hoped for results at Montecatini (for example, in the case of the passage from acetylene to ethylene) and often the cause of the flop may have pertained to managerial incompetence as well as a lack of technical experience.
Several projects fell into the trap caused by the fact that the time required for the development of a new product was underestimated. This time runs from the moment of conception in the research laboratory to when the substance itself is reproduced on an industrial scale thousands, even millions, of times. This passage, which from the outside was, in the 1950s, sometimes considered important but not essential, is actually determining and in certain cases can constitute up to 90% of the costs of a research programme. In the period when I was involved, even the specialists in many large chemical companies had to toil hard to avoid mistakes, even to the point at times of having to bear heavy financial consequences.

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