3M celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2002. In 1902, five Minnesota businessmen thought they had discovered corundum, and they believed it could rival garnet, the widely used abrasive found in furniture manufacturers’ grinding wheels. By 1907, they learned that what they thought was corundum was actually an inferior, low-grade mineral. They modified their plans and secured funding to make sandpaper. Their new plant collapsed, and the quality of the paper was poor; still 3M persevered.
In 1907, 3M hired William L. McKnight, an assistant bookkeeper who eventually became president and chairman of the board. He supported freedom in the workplace and fostered a spirit of adventure and challenge. Under McKnight’s leadership, 3M declared its first dividend in the last quarter of 1916 and has paid dividends every quarter since. By 1919, annual sales topped $1 million. The company was poised for rapid growth.
McKnight believed that diversification was the key to building superior technologies and exploring new applications. During the first years of his tenure, 3M developed 3M™ Wetordry™ Sandpaper, a product that could be used with water to create smoother surfaces while reducing the dust hazard to workers. As the popularity of automobiles grew, 3M’s researchers developed another practical product, Scotchlite reflective sheeting. When a car beam shines on it, Scotchlite sheeting reflects the light back, making night driving less hazardous.
In the mid-1940s, 3M acquired the rights to a process for creating fluorochemical compounds. The investment paid off in 1952 with Scotchgard™ Fabric Protector. At this juncture, 3M began to promote the “cross-pollination” that fueled the company’s continued growth. Researchers were encouraged to collaborate with colleagues in other divisions to see what their combined efforts might produce. By 1951, this practice was well-established among 3M’s scientists and engineers.
From the late 1940s through the 1950s, several breakthroughs distinguished 3M as a diversified technology company, including the development of the adhesive-backed surgical drapes that started 3M’s health care business. 3M also continued to strengthen its home and office business with tapes, adhesives, sandpapers, and scouring pads.
By the mid-1950s, the company’s annual sales exceeded $1 billion. In addition to the development of new products, 3M began its international operations in the 1950s. 3M International was born in 1951 with the creation of companies in seven countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Today, 3M holds fast to its goal of keeping resources close to its customers. As a result, the company has laboratories in 32 countries and operates manufacturing or converting operations at nearly 90 sites worldwide.
For the next 50 years, 3M grew at an unprecedented rate, becoming a category leader in each of its businesses with familiar brands, such as Scotchgard™, Post-it®, Scotch-Brite™, Filtrete™, and Nexcare™. In 2000, America’s highest award for technical achievement — the National Medal of Technology — was given to 3M, recognizing its unique culture that promotes research and collaboration among its diverse technologies and allows its employees and businesses the freedom to respond to the emerging needs of their customers.