Interview with Derek Till

Product and Process Development

Little and Griffin saw their 1886 laboratory as much more than an operation for chemical analysis. Both men were interested in “investigations for the improvement of processes and the perfection of products”. In the early 1900s, Arthur D. Little provided an unusual array of laboratory-based services:

These were services focused on the overall development of products and processes. The ADL departments included Fuel Engineering, Gas Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Electric Railways, Paper and Pulp, and Textiles, with a foundation provided by a Research Department and a General Laboratory Department. The Research Department provided reports on new processes and products, as well as studies of special problems. The General Laboratory Department provided analyses of all materials and specified iron, steel, alloys, lubricants, paints, cement, water, foods, mill supplies and factory wastes. Until the 1990s, the development of products and processes was the focal point of the company. It dwindled in importance (and investment) until ADL’s bankruptcy in 2002.

One note of interest – read the last line of the above-“Contract Service, as desired in all Departments.” I am a product of numerous short courses about selling. I have watched and participated in many efforts about “branding” and “marketing ” strategies. When I read those words- …”service, as desired”….. , I was in awe of both their audacity and simplicity.


Mr. Derek E. Till started at Arthur D. Little, Inc. in 1951 as a bench chemist in the basement of 30 Memorial Drive. He retired in 1985 as Vice President in charge of the Product Development Laboratories. Mr. Till is a gifted story teller; he provided us with some colorful insights into ADL cases (later known as projects) and people.

Q. What was your introduction to ADL?

I arrived here from the U.K. in 1951. Shortly after arriving, by chance I met the retired Research Director of Rumford Baking, also an English emigrant. He told me about ADL and gave me an introduction to Earl Stevenson, then President.

I hadn’t heard of ADL, but I followed up. Several days after being interviewed by various senior ADL professionals, I phoned the Personnel Office. I was told “Sorry, we’re not hiring any aliens at this time”! But I persisted, and reminded them that my introduction was to the President of ADL. I added that perhaps he might have some advice for how I should proceed.

I was invited back and spent over an hour with Earl Stevenson and Howard Billings, ADL Treasurer. During that time, they seemed to be far more interested in my WWII activities in the Royal Air Force (RAF), than in my qualifications as a Chemist. Finally, Earl asked Howard to take me to Laurence Hervey’s basement office; Laurence was the leader of the Product Development Labs. Howard, in his laconic manner, said to Laurence, “This is Derek Till — you should hire him — he has no business being alive”. This was on a Friday, and Laurence asked me to start on Monday!

Notes. Earl Stevenson joined ADL after World War I; he was a practicing chemist. Under Dr. Little, he became research director and subsequently the president of ADL in 1935.

Q. What are some of your most memorable client assignments?

There are several of particular note:

For Oliver Machinery, who made equipment for producing labels, we improvised a small unit for coating hot-melt adhesive on label stock. We then demonstrated its capabilities to a top executive from the client. We proudly turned our machine on, and to our horror it promptly went into reverse and dumped a large tray of hot liquid adhesive onto the floor! Fortunately, the client knew us well and eased our embarrassment by recounting an analogous experience he’d had with a big customer – he cut his finger while demonstrating that the unit he was selling– had no sharp edges!

In a project for Nabisco, were asked to confirm that they were the low cost producer of cookies, particularly for their most important product, the Oreo. Our final team presentation to the top management included a detailed analysis of the manufacturing process and manpower needs of the production line for the product that competed with the Oreo. They were amazed – how could we get this information without a plant visit, which they knew we would not do?

Well, one of our team, who happened to be visiting the city where the competitors’ plant was located, chanced on a local program on his hotel-room TV which showed a tour of the competitor’s plant, including the production line that made the product! We obtained a copy of the tape and were able (at our leisure) to extract a lot of useful information. How lucky can you be!

For several years, I led a working committee for the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA) to develop voluntary safety standards for toys, under the aegis of ASTM. This was prompted by a national TV show demonstrating the “New Season’s ten most dangerous toys”. Members of the Committee included technical people from manufacturers and retailers, the National Bureau of Standards, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a pediatrician and a lawyer. The ASTM Standard that we drafted was issued in 1972, and headed off government regulation. It is still in use in updated form, and still contains some of my old diagrams.

In a project for Samson Cordage, we designed a braided nylon cord to replace the long steel wire attached to a towed target for airborne firing practice by U.S. Air Force jets. Occasionally a fighter would hit the tow wire and sustain minor (but expensive!) damage. To get real data on the forces involved in the airstream, I flew in a two-passenger jet and took photos of the other plane towing several thousand feet of the special braid.
A case for Rubberset, a paint-brush company then owned by Bristol-Myers, proved very challenging. Chinese hog bristles were preferred in the best paint brushes because of the properties of the natural keratin polymer. However, they were in short supply, and expensive. We developed a bristle using keratin extracted from fresh (i.e. smelly!) chicken feathers that had comparable properties. For several months I ran a pilot operation in the Maryland chicken country, and developed a manufacturing process to make enough “bristle” for field tests. However, before he tests began, Rubberset was sold to a paint company, who shut down all research, much to my regret.
(I’m reminded that at a promotional luncheon in Montreal, I had to throw a live chicken at Larry Bass, who was speaking on the wonders of Product Development!)
I ran a $1 million Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program for the Bureau of Foods to improve the methods used to qualify plastic packaging for food contact. We were successful, primarily because of our lab-based competence in both polymers and food technology, acting as a team, which the government agencies could not match, although they tried. New test methods and solvent systems were developed, and adopted by the Bureau, Several scientific papers were published.

Q. What were some of the oddest things that occurred during your tenure at ADL?

There were two “Basement” incidents :

We arrived one morning to find that everything in one our labs was coated with a layer of black powder, ruining many experiments. The cause was carbon black, which had been blown through our windows during an outdoor experiment by the Cabot Labs next door!

On another occasion, the elevator door in the basement crashed open and two chemists raced out, pushing a trolley with a garbage can on top. They ran past our lab and out into the parking lot, just as a fire truck pulled up. Pandemonium! It turned out that they were trying to duplicate, on a small scale, what might have been the cause of the Texas City disaster, where a ship loaded with fertilizer exploded. Their experiment went out of control! Resulting in—pandemonium! Fortunately, it was on a small-scale.

Finally, my earlier mention of the laconic Howard Billings reminded me of an odd occurrence. Howard was the ADL Treasurer and also a chemist (all executives at that time wore both hats). He was crossing the parking area behind 30 Memorial Drive, when he saw a man doing some repairs on his car. Howard asked “Do you work at Arthur D. Little?” “Yes”, said the guy. “No you don’t” said Howard — surely the shortest termination interview on record ! Today–that action likely couldn’t happen. But a true Yankee would never tolerate a lost moment of work for the company!

Q. What are your interests and activities today?

Patricia and I are enjoying life at Carlton-Willard Homes, a “continuing care” community on 75 wooded acres in Bedford. There’s a lot going on, both on- and off-campus, and we have made many interesting friends. There are a number of ex-ADL’ers here — Allan Sloane , Ed Cox, Fred Bird. Caleb Warner etc.
Patricia heads up the local thespian activities, and I’m active in helping to videotape the WWII experiences of the older residents, both military and civilian. Ken Burns, of PBS, came and gave us a talk about recording the past a couple of weeks ago.

Between us we have six children and seven grandchildren to keep track of — in places like Alaska and France! No such thing as a peaceful retirement!