If, in the heyday of industrial production in Los Angeles, say around 1955, we were to trace a product back to its origins, to its very inception, we would most likely end up at Caltech. Start with a spark plug, an airplane part, a 25-gallon drum of rocket fuel, perhaps sitting in a container at the Port of Long Beach waiting to be shipped overseas, and follow its route back up the freeway or railroad tracks to the plant in Torrance or Burbank or Azusa where it was manufactured; from there, track its development back to the idea, the technological innovation that brought it into being, and you find yourself at the California Institute of Technology. Here, amidst the mansions and the tree-canopied streets of Pasadena, physicists and geologists developed the technologies that built the oil and aerospace industries of Southern California.
The marriage of industry and science has been cultivated at Caltech since 1921, when George Ellery Hale, founder of Mount Wilson Observatory, and physicist Robert A. Millikan partnered to create an institution where research would be funded by and serve big business. In 1930, with the goal of drawing the burgeoning aviation industry to Southern California, Millikan hired Theodore von Kármán to head the Daniel Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of Caltech. Soon after, aircraft companies such as Douglas were testing their models in the school’s newly built wind tunnel, aided by students. After graduation, these students in turn joined the ranks of local corporations including Lockheed and Hughes Aircraft, where cutting-edge technology and government contracts sustained profits. This collaboration of scientific innovation and capital, supported by the Department of Defense, came to be the driving force of Southern California’s wartime and postwar economy.
As the relationship between the military and industry solidified during WWII, Caltech received over $80 million from the government to support their ongoing research in jet propulsion and other aerospace technologies. In 1940, with financial backing from the U.S. Air Corps, Kármán created the Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project, which operated in a remote canyon at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. A group of scientists working on the project, including Kármán, formed the Aerojet Engineering Corporation in 1942 and soon began manufacturing rocket motors for military planes. Today the company’s government contracts include providing propulsion for NASA’s Discovery missions and the nation’s missile defense program.
While Aerojet’s products fueled national space and defense programs, its byproducts seeped into the groundwater beneath the San Gabriel Valley. Toxic chemicals, first detected in the drinking supply in 1979, were traced back to the company’s former facility in Azusa, a few miles east of Pasadena. The area of contamination, spread over 30 square miles, was divided into four Superfund sites in 1984. In 2002, after years of negotiations, Aerojet and seven other companies agreed to pay out over $200 million to pay for water remediation. Cleanup of the basin continues today, the affected wells providing water to over one million people. Here, as at Superfund sites throughout Los Angeles County and beyond, we can consider the consequences of industrialization, where every product yields its unwanted byproduct – an invisible yet enduring reminder that profit does not come without cost.
Products, byproducts and profit: all are the result of industrial manufacturing in Southern California. If we were now to trace the route of capital as it flows into and from industry, we would again find ourselves in Pasadena. Over a century ago, the money that built the mansions on Orange Grove Avenue also funded Caltech; in turn, local companies implemented technology developed at the school, old money thereby becoming new as industry and profits grew. We can see evidence of Caltech’s privileged relationship to capital on its campus, where in the quiet, heavy heat of a Pasadena summer it stands in for the Ivy League in a Hollywood film production. Walking through its rose-gardens, along paths cutting through its vast green lawns, we forget we’re in a desert climate. Its eclectic architecture marks generous corporate endowments over the years: from the Spanish Colonial arches of the buildings designed by Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to the modern stone construction of the Broad Center. In the middle of campus is the Millikan library, one end surrounded by a moat. Inside is a green-carpeted conference room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a 7-foot wide chandelier, and leather mid-century modern chairs set around tables. In this silent room, we can ponder the benefits – and costs – of Caltech’s innovations – to industry, to society, and to the surrounding community.