Éleuthère Irénée du Pont

Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (1771-1834), a French-born American manufacturer, founded the gunpowder mill which became the basis of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.

Born in Paris on June 24, 1771, E. I. du Pont was the son of Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a leading economist of the physiocratic school. Irénée demonstrated little interest in school, and in 1788 he went to work for Antoine Lavoisier, the noted French chemist who was chief of the royal powder works. He became Lavoisier's first assistant in 1791.

Following the French Revolution, Irénée's father found he could not cooperate with the new government and decided the family should emigrate to the United States. The decision was undoubtedly influenced by the elder Du Pont's friend Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had become acquainted when Jefferson was serving as minister to France. Thirteen members of the family, including Irénée, his wife, and three children, sailed for the United States and arrived in Newport, R.I., on New Year's Day 1800.

On a hunting trip with Col. Louis de Toussard, an American military officer, Irénée du Pont discovered that American gunpowder was not only poor in quality but high in price. They made a study of the powder industry in America and concluded that the construction of a powder mill might be a profitable venture. Du Pont and his brother Victor returned to France to seek the assistance of former associates. He obtained designs for machinery and the equipment he would need, plus pledges of financial support. Upon his return he purchased a farm 4 miles from Wilmington, Del., as the site for his factory. In 1803 the small mill began processing saltpeter for the government, and eventually the company produced the first powder for sale.

During the next few years the company increased its production and sales, but not without problems. Stockholders grew tired of Du Pont's continuous expansion and demanded their share of the profits. Two explosions, one in 1815 and another in 1818, resulted in 49 deaths and considerable financial loss. Orders from the U.S. government during the War of 1812, however, made Du Pont the major powder producer in America.

Du Pont had other interests besides gunpowder. In 1811, with his brother Victor and Peter Baudy, he opened a woolen mill on the Brandywine River. Du Pont helped establish a cotton mill and a tannery. In 1822 he became a director of the Bank of the United States. He died on Oct. 31, 1834, in Philadelphia.

Further Reading on Éleuthère Irénée du Pont

Bessie Gardner du Pont edited and translated Life of Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (12 vols., 1923-1927), which is largely a collection of Du Pont's correspondence. His life in the United States is included in her E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.: A History, 1802-1902 (1920). Max Dorian, The Du Ponts: From Gunpowder to Nylon (1961; trans. 1962), contains extensive references to Irénée du Pont, as does William S. Dutton, Du Pont: One Hundred and Forty Years (1942).