Early struggles plant the seed of innovation - 3M History

13th Jun 2021

Since their humble beginnings, persistence, innovation, and creativity have enabled 3M to achieve long-term success to continuously improve lives. Their first exclusive product, 3M™ Three-M-ite™, paved the way for such successes.

3M began in 1902 as a prospective mining company, with a goal to mine a mineral called ‘corundum’ - a tough material commonly used in abrasive manufacturing. What the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) Company found instead was ‘anorthosite’, a soft mineral that did not offer abrasive qualities.

3M instead took an alternative route by shifting to operate exclusively as a manufacturing company. 3M moved to Duluth where the newly purchased manufacturing facility lay in wait. However, the building’s floor collapsed in 1905, causing damage and destruction to the new start-up’s headquarters. It seemed that the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company was set for failure.

Damaged raw materials led to poor performing products, and unsettled customers led to a slow drop in product reputation. Something had to be done and it was then that the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company quickly implemented quality assurance; a measure outlined by President William McKnight and one that many companies had not yet made mandatory.

After establishing a quality control system, an established competitor introduced an abrasive cloth manufactured with an artificial abrasive. With no exclusive products yet, 3M recognised an opportunity. Moving quickly, 3M connected with a supplier who could produce an artificial, abrasive mineral of their own.

This was no instant success however - the new 3M product was stiff, brittle, and lacked in quality compared to its competitor. Solving this problem, as many before, required creativity and a small degree of luck. But, before long, 3M introduced Three-M-ite Cloth - the very first exclusive 3M product and a solid competitor to the existing abrasive cloth.

But with this glimmer of hope came another blow - a patent infringement, and demand to halt production by the competition. 3M hired Paul Carpenter - a lawyer who specialised in patent law. 3M prevailed during the process which effectively introduced the company to its second important lesson: the importance of patents - a philosophy that endures today.

Thanks in part to Three-M-ite Cloth, 3M finally experienced enough profits to declare its first dividend of 6 cents per share in 1916. 3M’s team gathered; “Gentlemen”, Edger Ober - one of 3M’s first investors began, “this is the day we have been waiting for”. Ober continued, “there are a lot of people who thought we’d never make it”.

And it was here that 3M’s success story began, enduring on through years of new challenges. From its humble beginnings of starting with a rock and evolving into a Fortune 500 company, 3M’s culture of innovation, passion, and a desire for discovery have helped create a better world by improving lives through science.