Imperial Chemical Industries
PLC was formed in 1926 from the merger of four British chemical
companies to challenge the rest of the world’s chemical producers.
The four were alkali company Brunner, Mond; Nobel Industries, a
major explosives concern established in 1870 by Alfred Nobel,
inventor of dynamite; United Alkali; and British Dyestuffs. The
agreement to create ICI was made during a transatlantic voyage
aboard the Aquitania and the company was formally incorporated on 7
December 1926, with 33,000 employees.
The principal products of the new company included chemicals,
explosives and accessories, fertilisers, insecticides, dyestuffs,
non-ferrous metals and paints. In its first year of business, 1927,
ICI sold £27 million worth of products and made a pre-tax profit of
The company’s labour relations policies, with recognised works
councils, an employee shareholding scheme and profit sharing, were
advanced for their time. ICI’s roundel, familiar today, was based on
that of Nobel Industries.
In 1928 ICI moved into its newly built head office at 9 Millbank,
London, not far from the Houses of Parliament and on the site of an
ancient trade route which carried pre-Roman traffic to and from
Europe across the River Thames at its lowest fordable point.
ICI entered the 1930s dealing
with the consequences of the 1929 global financial crash. Profits
had fallen and by 1932 it had lost 10 per cent of its capital
employed. ICI’s founding commitment to research – and some luck –
would prove its salvation.
The word ‘plastics’ was coined by ICI in 1927, but it was a 1933
laboratory accident that led its scientists to discover a new
polymer that was a landmark in its development – they created
polythene, the first plastic, now used in products ranging from food
wrapping and film to moulded plastic items and squeezable bottles.
ICI gained more immediate commercial success in the 1930s with
another plastic, ‘Perspex’ acrylic sheet. It was first used in
windscreens for cars and aircraft, but today has applications from
neon signs and furniture to intraocular lenses used in cataract
Work by a small team in medicinal chemistry research in the
dyestuffs organisation in the mid-1930s was to lead to drugs
primarily to control bacterial or parasitic infection. This was the
start of ICI’s pharmaceutical activities that would see the
development of some of the most important medical treatments of the
The 1939-45 war had a major
impact on company’s operations, and production efforts were diverted
and the focus for R&D was almost entirely on the war. Materials
developed during this period were quickly adapted for post-war use,
including ‘Perspex’ acrylic sheet and medicines, as well as
pesticides and weedkillers.
Despite raw material supply problems that continued until 1947, ICI
continued to develop other products we still use today, such as
polyester fibre. Initial discoveries led to ‘Terylene’, the first
polyester fibre. The general demand for polythene – used in the
development of radar – was such that by the end of the decade,
despite increased production, ICI could not meet demand.
The first really effective synthetic treatment against malaria –
‘Paludrine’ – was developed by ICI scientists in research that was
hastened by anticipated wartime needs in the Mediterranean and Asia
Pacific, when supplies of the natural quinine treatment for malaria
were expected to be cut off to Britain. ‘Paludrine’ was to prove the
most effective anti-malarial available for more than four decades.
A major ICI product in the
1950s was diphenylmethane di-isocyanate (MDI), a key ingredient in
the manufacture of polyurethane foam that was safer and more
efficient than existing materials. MDI was quickly adopted for use
as insulation in domestic refrigerators and freezers, and by the
late 1950s, in cold stores and refrigerated transport. Applications
then expanded into building insulation and soft furniture, including
automobile seats and shoe soles.
‘Fluothane’ was introduced in 1953 as a replacement for chloroform
and ether, and was to become the most commonly used anaesthetic in
the western world .
The 1950s – and the early part of the 1960s – saw continued
pioneering developments by ICI in polyamide (nylon) and polyester
fibres. Products included ‘Procion’ reactive dyes, a breakthrough
that complemented the development of polyester fibres in clothing.
From the end of the 1939-45 war until the late 1950s, ICI was faced
with an urgent need to build new plants to meet demands for products
from customers in the UK and around the world. The period was marked
by heavy capital expenditure on new plants and on increasing
capacity at existing facilities.
ICI’s pharmaceuticals research
continued to develop effective drugs for the treatment of common
health problems. ICI scientists in the early 1960s, notably
Nobel-prize winner Sir James Black, pioneered the development of
beta-blockers, which were effective medical treatments for heart
problems, including angina (heart-related chest pain) and high blood
The Old English sheepdog appeared in ‘Dulux’ advertising for the
first time in 1963, as ICI Paints began appealing to the new DIY
market. ‘Dulux Brilliant White’, a breakthrough in home decorating,
was a success from its launch in the mid-1960s.
The ICI paraquat pesticide ‘Gramoxone’ was launched in 1962.
Pesticides today are considered risky, but at the time ‘Gramoxone’
was a breakthrough – quickly effective and then quickly inactive, it
left little residue, was harmless to wildlife, inactive in soil, and
helped prevent soil erosion by not affecting soil-retaining grass or
weeds surrounding the treated crop.
The 1960s saw the development of a new family of plastics that ICI
would lead with the introduction of PES (polyethersulphone), a tough
engineering plastic, and then PEEK (polyether ether ketone) for the
The acquisition of Atlas
Chemical Industries in 1971 was significant in that it gave ICI a
base for expansion into the US. The UK-based company had ventured
into continental Europe during the previous decade and now it was
seeking to extend its operations.
Other highlights the decade included the launch of ‘Aquabase’
decorative paints, for which ICI Paints re-formulated its coatings
base from solvents to water as part of a growing commitment to
In treatments for heart disease, ‘Tenormin’ was launched in 1976 and
would become the best-selling beta-blocker in almost every market
around the world. Together with ‘Inderal’, launched in the 1960s,
ICI’s dominance in this therapeutic category was strong – the two
treatments became the most subscribed beta-blockers in the world.
In the UK, the 1970s saw a major oil find in the North Sea by a
consortium of which ICI was a member; the sale of ICI’s holding in
Imperial Metal Industries; and the start-up of an olefins plant at
Wilton, jointly owned with BP Chemicals.
The launch of ‘Pruteen’ single-cell protein in the 1970s, although
not a commercial success, led to the development of other ICI
technologies such as fermentation technology and biotechnology in
ICI’s innovation in
pharmaceuticals continued with the launch of ‘Diprivan’, an
intravenous anaesthetic that allowed the level of sedation to be
precisely controlled. It had the benefits for patients and
anaesthetists of speed and quality of recovery following surgery.
The prostate cancer treatment ‘Zoladex’, an injectable, was also
launched in this period.
In 1984, while the chemical cycle was ‘up’, ICI was the first UK
company to achieve £1 billion in annual pre-tax profits. The £1
billion mark was achieved several times during the decade, with more
than £1.5 billion reached in 1989.
ICI became the first company in the world to market solid emulsion
paint for application by roller by the domestic consumer. With the
purchase of Glidden of the US in 1986, ICI became one of the largest
paints companies in the world.
Expansion into the USA continued with the acquisition in 1985 of the
chemicals interest of Beatrice and of Garst Seed, a major corn seed
company. In 1987, Stauffer Chemicals of the US was acquired to
further strengthen the agrochemicals business, and the Board of
Directors met in New York, the first time it had met outside the UK.
A new and challenging list of
environmental objectives was announced, the first of its series of
five-year series of Challenge improvement objectives, which continue
today with Challenge 2010. Another first, in 1991, was the
appointment of the first woman to the ICI Board. Even more
significant events, however, were to come.
First was the demerger in 1993 of the Pharmaceuticals and
Agrochemicals businesses to form Zeneca (today AstraZeneca, a global
pharmaceuticals company; the agrochemicals business joined Novartis
to form Switzerland-based Syngenta).
Then, in 1997, ICI continued its momentous portfolio shift with the
acquisition of the Speciality Chemicals businesses of Unilever and
the divestment of its bulk and intermediate chemicals businesses.
These divestments were to total more than 50 separate deals over a
period of just five years.
By becoming a leading specialty chemicals and paints producer, ICI’s
strategy was to move away from cyclical bulk chemicals and up the
value chain to be a higher growth, higher margin business.