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How 3M went from a failed mining operation on the North Shore to an international manufacturing powerhouse

3M’s developments had far-reaching impacts on various industries, including office supplies and entertainment.

photo of 3M's headquarters
3M headquarters in Maplewood

From its early beginnings on Lake Superior’s North Shore to its legacy of innovative manufacturing in St. Paul, 3M—formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company — has introduced both consumer and industrial products that have been successfully marketed worldwide.

3M was founded in 1902 in Two Harbors, Minnesota. Prospectors were attracted to the reported wealth of minerals in northern Minnesota due to the rich deposits of iron ore found in the region. 3M’s founders sought to mine corundum, a material used in sandpaper. However, they found that their deposit contained the mineral anorthosite rather than corundum, and the mining plans were abandoned. After this setback, the company moved to nearby Duluth, where it sought to manufacture abrasive products. Lucius Ordway Jr. made huge investments in 3M and eventually encouraged the company to move its factory to St. Paul.

While Ordway’s constant “angel” investments rescued 3M from financial failure, new personnel were hired to invigorate the company and build relationships with customers. William McKnight, a bookkeeper at the company who later became president in 1929, spearheaded efforts to emphasize quality control. He also hired Archibald Bush to lead sales of 3M’s products. In 1916, 3M turned its first profit after creating its first unique product: Three-M-ite abrasive cloth. Following this long-awaited success, the company returned its first dividend to its shareholders.

In St. Paul, 3M management fostered a culture of innovation and scientific discovery. To encourage employees to develop new products, the company instituted a “15 percent rule,” which allowed scientists to spend 15 percent of their working hours on independent projects. Many of 3M’s most recognizable products were developed through independent study at 3M’s facilities. These include Sasheen ribbon, a decorating ribbon, and Tartan Track and Turf, the first artificial running track and turf ever developed. Another innovative 3M institution was the 3M Technical Forum, created in 1951. The forum was designed to allow technical employees of the company to collaborate, educate, and learn from other employees who often worked on wildly different products.

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While the two most notable 3M consumer products are likely Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes, there are many other products that 3M has pioneered — some even by accident. In 1953, lab technicians Patsy Sherman and Joan Mullen were working on fluorochemical rubber particles when Mullen accidentally dropped a beaker of the fluid on her shoes. Finding it impossible to get the fluid off of Mullen’s shoes, Sherman found that this was an opportunity she could develop further. A few years later, Scotchgard fabric protector was introduced, and Sherman continued to improve the still-popular product throughout her career.

As 3M expanded into more industries, the company sought to enter the global market in the 1950s. 3M and its competitors created a joint corporation that could compete with foreign corporations, but this venture was soon dismantled due to anti-trust laws. 3M used components left over from that operation to streamline their own international network, and throughout the 1950s, 3M opened operations in twelve different countries. In the next decade, 3M opened operations in twenty-three more countries—at least one on every continent except Antarctica. This early and sustained expansion allowed 3M to strengthen its footing in a global market, and it helped make 3M one of America’s largest corporations.

While Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes might be 3M’s most recognizable products, the company has developed solutions for many different purposes and industries. Reflective street signs, specialized stoplights, Thinsulate thermal insulation, and Scotch-Brite cleaning pads are just a few of the many more innovations that have helped turn this fledgling mining company into a Fortune 500 global corporation.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.