Oral history interview with Joseph Labovsky

Oral history interview with Joseph Labovsky

  • 1996-Jul-24

Joseph Labovsky opens the interview with a discussion of his childhood in Ukraine and his family experiences there after his father emigrated to the United States in 1914. Labovsky moved with his mother and siblings to Komarine, a village adjacent to Chernobyl on the Dnieper River, where the family survived the Communist Revolution, civil war, famine, and a pogrom which killed fifteen of the twenty Jewish families there. In 1922, Labovsky's father was able to locate the family and make arrangements for a safe escape through Eastern Europe to the United States. Labovsky describes childhood interactions with the Polish and Red Armies in Komarine; impressions of settling in Wilmington, Delaware, where his father was a successful tailor; resuming his early education; and learning English.

Next, Labovsky discusses his high school graduation and his father's successful efforts to secure him a job at DuPont, where he began working as lab assistant for Dr. Wallace Carothers' research group. He reflects upon his experiences and perceptions of early nylon work. Labovsky also looks back on his relationships with other scientists, particularly his mentor Carothers who directed him towards a DuPont college scholarship. In 1930, Labovsky began training at Bliss Electrical College but transferred after one year to the Pratt Institute, where he earned a degree in industrial chemical engineering. In 1934, he graduated and, after struggling in the Depression-era job market, happily accepted an offer to return to Carothers' research group and nylon development work. The interview continues as Labovsky details both the research group's work testing polymers and discovering polymer 66, and differences in the work environments under Carothers and, later, George Graves. After a discussion of work to develop the fiber 66 commercial process, Labovsky shares recollections of Carothers and the circumstances surrounding his untimely death in 1937. Throughout the second half of the interview, he chronicles the commercial development and success of nylon, providing details on spinning, drawing, quality control, and commercial processing. Labovsky describes problems and solutions in the history of nylon, including his War Production Award and three-part "A" bonus for reducing nylon waste through procedures to repair spinnerets during the Korean War. He describes his career path from laboratory technician to process control foreman to management training specialist for DuPont International--emphasizing the importance of troubleshooting, problem solving, and standard practice procedures throughout. The interview closes with comments on safety in nylon production and DuPont's overall safety record.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 53 pages
  • 2 h 24 m 22 s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute
Digitization funder
  • Audio synchronization made possible through the generous funding of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

About the Interviewer

John Kenly Smith, Jr., is an associate professor of history at Lehigh University, where he has been a faculty member since 1987. He coauthored Science and Corporate Strategy: DuPont R&D, 1902–1980, published in 1988. He served with the DuPont R&D History Project from 1982 to 1986 and was Newcomen Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School from 1986 to 1987. He received the Newcomen Prize in Business History for Best Book Published in America and is on the editorial board of American Chemical Society Books.

Physical location

Oral history number 0148

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Interviewee biographical information

  • September 10, 1912
  • Kiev, Ukraine
  • March 24, 2013
  • Wilmington, Delaware, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1931 Bliss Electrical School Master Electrician
1934 Pratt Institute BS Industrial Chemical Engineering
1936 University of Pennsylvania Chemistry, Psychology, and German

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company

  • 1930 Summer Chemist Helper
  • 1934 to 1937 Laboratory Technical Assistant
  • 1937 to 1938 Foreman, Nylon Semi-Works
  • 1938 to 1939 Shift Supervisor, Nylon Pilot Plant
  • 1939 to 1941 Process Control Foreman, Seaford, Delaware, Nylon Plant
  • 1941 to 1955 Quality Control Supervisor, Spinneret Laboratory Supervisor, and Textile Area Supervisor
  • 1955 to 1963 Training Supervisor, Textile Research Laboratory
  • 1963 to 1969 Management Training Specialist
  • 1969 to 1975 Training and Industrial Relations Supervisor
  • 1975 Retired

Società nazionale industria applicazioni viscosa

  • 1975 to 1979 Consultant, SNIA viscosa, Italy
  • 1975 to 1979 Consultant, SNIA viscosa, Ireland
  • 1975 to 1979 Consultant, SNIA viscosa, Montefibre, Italy
  • 1975 to 1979 Consultant, Montedison, Italy

Diamond Shamrock Corporation

  • 1975 to 1979 Consultant, Diamond Shamrock, France


  • 1985 to 1995 Consultant


Year(s) Award
1941 War Production Board Commendation
1997 Wilmington High School, Graduate Wall of Fame

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PDF — 5.2 MB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

5 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads