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Giovanni Battista Pirelli and the “Discovery” of Rubber

On 28 January 1872, the twenty-three-year-old Giovanni Battista Pirelli founded “GB Pirelli & C.”, a company for the manufacture and sale of articles in elastic rubber. This was an entirely new industry in Italy, in a sector that was also in its infancy in other countries. But what was behind this innovative entrepreneurial decision, which led to the creation of a company that is now about to celebrate its 150th anniversary? In 1867, Giovanni Battista Pirelli, who was born in Varenna, enrolled at the Istituto Tecnico Superiore di Milano (later, the Politecnico University), initially on the civil engineering course, but after his first year he switched to industrial engineering.

In 1870, he was one of the first to graduate from the course, together with other brilliant young people such as Alberto Riva, Cesare Saldini, Angelo Salmoiraaghi, to name but a few, who also went on to lead successful entrepreneurial ventures. As the best student on his course, Pirelli obtained a 3,000-lire scholarship financed by a noblewoman, Teresa Berra Kramer, to travel abroad and examine a new industry that could be started up in Italy, drawing on the examples of production that were already under way in the most industrialised areas of Europe. Guided by his teacher, the engineer Giuseppe Colombo, Giovanni Battista decided to study the rubber industry, which would be of strategic importance for the development of Italy. This had been clearly shown a few years earlier by the story of the Affondatore. This was an Italian warship that had sunk in 1866 between Ancona and Falconara and that could not be salvaged until a French industrialist had provided the rubber tubes required to raise it to the surface. In November 1870 Pirelli thus left Italy and went to Switzerland, where he spent longer than planned (a total of 4 months) due to the Franco-Prussian war, which prevented him from entering Germany. In Switzerland he mainly visited textile factories, with which he was favourably impressed. When he saw Pirelli’s enthusiasm, Colombo urged him not to “lose sight of the objective of rubber: this will be an entirely new industry, while that of silk has already been exploited so much here that little margin remains.”

Pirelli continued on his way in March, arriving in Germany – where he had to stay for another 4 months while waiting for the Paris Commune events to blow over and where he mainly visited metalworking companies, but also his first rubber factory in Mannheim. After three weeks in Belgium, he finally arrived in France, and went to Paris, where he stayed for ten days. In nine months, out of a total of 138 companies he visited, only six were in the rubber sector. Financial and time constraints meant that he never made it to the United Kingdom, where the rubber industry had developed considerably. He also found great difficulty in gaining access to rubber factories, due to the reluctance of entrepreneurs to open the doors of their companies to him. The few cases in which Pirelli got his way were thanks to the influence that the Politecnico University had on local entrepreneurs. One of these was Antoine Aimé Goulard, who introduced Pirelli to François Casassa, a Parisian manufacturer, who showed him round his factory in Charenton-le-Pont, in the Île-de-France region.

On his return to Italy, again with the assistance of professors Colombo and Francesco Brioschi, Giovanni Battista managed to raise the capital he needed to set up his company. The few relationships he had entered into with foreign manufacturers during his trip also helped him start up his business, and Goulard himself was appointed as the technical director of Pirelli & C. in February 1872. As we read in the agreement signed by the two of them, Goulard was to give Pirelli “all the details, and with the greatest precision, of the technical processes used for manufacturing items in elastic rubber” and he was to provide “all such clarifications as may be requested by Pirelli himself”. Goulard was also required to “supervise and train the workers and ensure the proper progress of the work”. While the first factory was being built along the Sevesetto, outside of Porta Nuova in Milan, Pirelli procured the machines he needed to start production. These included purifiers, masticators, mixers, and rolling presses, which he purchased himself in the United Kingdom and, where possible, from Milanese companies such as Edoardo Suffert. The factory started operating in June 1873, with 40 workers and 5 office staff, on an indoor area of 1,000 square metres. The first articles to be produced were pipes, belts, valves, and gaskets.

This was the start of an adventure that has never stopped since.

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