Southern Research at 75: A visionary creates a laboratory to lift industry and a region
September 8, 2016
Thomas Martin, the dynamic president of Alabama Power in 1941, saw the South’s industrial potential being held back for a simple reason – there was too little research activity to benefit businesses and drive innovation across the region.
Martin managed to make his vision come true, with the creation of what is now known as Southern Research, a Birmingham-based non-profit organization that has been committed to scientific discovery and technology development for 75 years.
From the start, Martin’s ambitions for the organization were lofty.
Its laboratories would concentrate on “discovering new products, new materials as substitutes for existing ones, improvement in existing products and their method of manufacture, use of by-products and materials now wasted, and study of potential markets for new products and new methods of manufacture,” he said.
As the 1940s began, the need for a research organization in Birmingham had actually been discussed for more than a decade, following a proposal by University of Alabama professor Stewart Lloyd.
Lloyd, the dean of the university’s School of Chemistry, Metallurgy and Ceramics, called for the creation of a research group in 1930 after preparing a report that examined the Birmingham area’s chemical assets and their industrial potential.
CALL TO ACTION
The influential Martin, president of Alabama Power since 1920, took up the cause. A pivotal moment came on Oct. 10, 1940, when he delivered a five-minute speech to the Alabama Chamber of Commerce proposing the creation of a research laboratory supported by a fund of not less than $250,000.
He declared that Alabama Power would match any pledge. Soon, momentum for the plan began to swell.
With Martin at the wheel, nearly 80 business leaders signed up as incorporators of the new research organization. On Oct. 9, 1941, in Room 236 of Birmingham’s Tutwiler Hotel, the incorporators gathered for their first meeting.
Two days later, incorporation papers for what would be called Alabama Research Institute were filed. Martin became the organization’s chairman in December 1941, but the U.S. entry into World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack put the fledgling research group on hold.
Late in 1943, Martin made another push. He invited industrial leaders from around the South to a meeting at Alabama Power’s headquarters on Dec. 21 and kicked off a financing campaign to launch operations.
His goal was $50,000 the first year, and double that amount in subsequent years. Alabama Power pledged $15,000 per year for five years — $75,000 total.
Other businessmen responded with substantial pledges. With support for the research institute flowing in from outside Alabama, it was time for a name that reflected a regional focus.
On May 4, 1944, the Southern Research Institute was born, with the goal of becoming an economic driver for the entire region.
In August that year, Martin purchased the Morris-Cartwright House on Birmingham’s Southside for $57,500 as the organization’s base.
Before long, Southern Research’s first scientists and technicians were diving into their initial research projects.
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