Chapter 4: In the World of Research

4. Demand Follows Supply
I had thus begun my work at Battelle as a project head and chance had opened the road to the textile field to me. Since my first experience with electronics and the measurement of the temperature of threads during manufacturing process I had kept the friendship of Michael­ L., a Belgian engineer who, without realising it, had taken the risk of trusting the study to us. Like his wife he was also a good pianist and so, once more I have an example of the many people in our society who devoted themselves to technology, and still more to science while developing notable artistic tastes. Subtle links exist in the depths of the human soul that connect Mozart, mathematics, the stars, physics and even technology.
Taking advantage of the important development of the engineering department, I was able to increase the quality of the research done on fibre, fabrics and textile machines and the research group that consisted of half a dozen engineers.
Sometimes this led us towards new neighbouring areas such as that of footwear. At that time there was a great hope that it would be possible to use synthetic material (polyure­thane) in place of leather. The principal problem with natural leather lay in the diversity of the animal hides used, in that every beast had a boil, a small wound or imperfection somewhere. Even the best machines for cutting the hides for footwear didn’t easily manage to work on industrial mass production. So consideration was given to this new material which, it was thought could be harder wearing, easier to work, homogeneous and breathable. At the beginning it was even hypothesised that the new qualities hoped for from the materials would permit the development of a market at a higher price compared to leather. Leather however held its own well against these attacks for footwear that covers the foot completely: even today, it is impressive how it combines softness, protection against rain, and maintains an excellent degree of ventilation.
Once these limits were established we explored – as did other industrial research centres – the sector involving footwear in which the feet could put up with not breathing as they do in a normal shoe. It was the beginning of the market for modern ski boots of which the specialist in my group probably still keeps a prototype sample sent by the client as a gift. The next stage involved tennis and sports shoes in which several materials were combined and from which the prevailing fashion was born, a fashion followed by the majority of young people and by those who want to appear as such, to the advantage, though not always, of price and comfort. This progress came about essentially as a consequence of the possibilities of a new indus­trial production subsequently accepted by consumers. Demand can only follow supply, as it always happens, though always maintaining freedom of choice. Another case very similar to footwear was one concerning jeans.
There were many studies dealing with machines for knitwear, fabrics and the products deriving from them. Specialisation and productivity went along step by step with the reduction in the kinds of fabric that could be worked by every model of machine. An aspect of the phenomenon of diminishing returns of technology began to appear which I will analyse later.
Some ideas are developed through analogy in an unexpected way.
So it was that textile production methods one day found an application in a project concern­ing the creation of synthetic meat. Starting with a paste based on petroleum (which is after all of vegetable origin) a means was sought for making it appear as close to meat as possible. By squeezing this paste through a strainer, not very different from those used for spaghetti after cooking, fibres were extracted from it. These were then intertwined to obtain a piece of meat the appearance of which was acceptable to the naked eye. At the basis of this process of mixing the fibres was a kind of hair dryer whose hot air flow could be regulated and the fibres put in order. After which the researchers had a meal of synthetic steak.
I cannot forget the research commissioned by the Swedish Agriculture ministry. It concerned the production of starch in a factory in the southeast region of the country, at Malmö. This starch used a special variety of potato produced in Holland as its raw material, while usually corn was used. Well then, Sweden was not part of the European Community and was concerned about knowing whether they could always be sure of getting the Dutch potatoes without having to face the obstacles created by the European agriculture policy.
At the presentation of the study in Stockholm, besides the interested Swedes the President of the Dutch Farmers Federation was also there. After the discussion we were offered a Swedish dinner. It was very convivial with vodka and a variety of canapès. It was very pleas­ant. My Dutch companion however, alone with me in the midst of a dozen “vikings” who had begun to sing, approached me and whispered in my ear: “These northerners are strange, very different from us southerners…” I could have hugged him! He had adapted to me, an Italian from the “South” like him, Dutch. Long live Europe!

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