Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Perseverance or Luck?

Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He was known for both, often laboring for months on an idea for a new product or process. What I learned in Laurel, MS, is that sometimes that 1 percent can also be luck.

Laurel, MS, (population 18,393) was started as a lumber town in 1882 and became known as the Yellow Pine Capital of the World by the 1920s. Numerous sawmills dominated the industrial base of the community and the piles of sawdust grew into small mountains in the town. One of those sawmill owners wrote to Thomas Edison asking for his assistance in finding a use for those piles. Edison sent a young assistant, William H. Mason, to try to find some use for this sawdust.

Mason set up a small laboratory and began experimenting with the product, but was unable to find any solution. Fortunately, he didn’t give up and he discovered Masonite by accident when the stove in his laboratory exploded when he was at lunch. When he returned he found that the pile of sawdust next to the stove had been transformed by the heat. He soon found that by heating the sawdust and then blasting it with steam, he could form them into boards that had a high bending and tensile strength. And, unlike other similar products which used formaldehyde and glues, Masonite, which used only natural products, was also an environmentally friendly “green” product. Although I’m not sure that being “green” was considered a huge plus in 1924.

Mason set up manufacturing operations in the town, eventually hiring over 6,000. The company, now owned by an LBO outfit, still has operations in Laurel.

Do you have any “piles of sawdust” in your town that a young William Mason might be working on?

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