The Early History of Midwest Research Institute:“…a lighthouse on the prairie”

(originally published 7/9/20)

When I scheduled a post on the history of Midwest Research Institute for this year, I truly didn’t realize (or perhaps remember?) that the story of MRI begins where the previous three posts ended – ongoing opportunities presented by Kansas City’s WWII-era defense production plants. Serendipitous, yes, but that fact is just one small part of the fascinating early history of MRI I’m sharing here. I had the great fortune to work for MRI first as an intern, eventually as a senior analyst, and finally as a contractor, between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. It was the start of my career as a jack-of-all-subjects researcher.

The history I’m sharing here is taken almost exclusively from the book MRI published on the occasion of its 40th anniversary in 1985. The book was written by Dr. Charles Kimball, who referred to MRI in that book as a “lighthouse on the prairie.” Kimball became MRI’s third President in 1950, but from the standpoint of the ongoing life of the institute, he is considered the intellectual and organizational father of MRI. Among the staff – even those who didn’t know him or even had met him before he retired in 1975 – he was always referred to as “Charlie.” Something about that familiarity speaks to the regard his employees and colleagues had for him, and indeed, for the affection he felt toward everyone there that permitted him to put his impressive titles and credentials aside.

A telegram from President Harry Truman, a official (though largely honorary) member of MRI’s Board of Governors, as they were then called, sent to the group on the occasion of their 1947 meeting.

The end of WWII left a lot of assets on Kansas City’s table. Facilities that had employed technologies that could be privatized, a population of scientific intelligence that would have to migrate to suitable jobs in other locations, and a local capacity for growth that would be sent elsewhere if something weren’t done to capture it. Several regional business leaders, coming from backgrounds as varied as real estate, manufacturing, chemical production, research, and philanthropy came together to create a non-profit institute that could be the mechanism for turning all that potential into real local value, and in the process, turn Kansas City into a midwestern mecca for research. In 1945, there were three other comparable institutions, all east of the Mississippi. The model was for an independent institute that would be different from the others, whose funding came from long-term sponsorships. MRI would contract with research interests – public or private – on a project-by-project basis, allowing it a flexibility in responding to the market that other contract research institutes lacked.

As Kimball described it in his book, “The charter was unusual in its emphasis on regional development through science, a new direction for research institutes. The founders were more than hometown boosters. They believed in the midwest’s potentially dynamic mix of industry, resource utilization, and food, fiber and livestock production and processing. They wanted to turn an area of the country that was all but ignored, except for its natural resources, into a self-supporting region.”

When Westport was its own city, 4049 Pennsylvania was its first city hall and fire station. In the late 1940s, it served as MRI’s first home. The building was razed in the 1970s.

The Institute was chartered in 1943, but it took another two years to put all the elements in place. Employees were hard to find – much of the talent was either employed by or enlisted in the armed forces. As they did in war production factories, women with appropriate expertise would have had a rare opportunity for work here, but sadly workers, too, were few and far between. The equipment required for even the most basic tests was expensive and in demand due to war production, and while MRI was quickly developing a backlog of potential projects – demand was surprisingly high for this sort of work – funding for equipment would only be available after project revenue came in. The first big-ticket item purchased was for an RCA electron microscope, but most of the rest was war surplus machining equipment from places like Pratt & Whitney. Computers, such as they were, were far too big and expensive for a fledgling firm. The whole operation ran on mechanical adding machines.

MRI is responsible for the big white “M” on every M&M you’ve ever eaten, and the coating process they created made possible the claim that the candy “melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”

MRI’s first official quasi-permanent home was in the old Westport City Hall and former fire station at 4049 Pennsylvania. The building was so small, and so ill-suited to the purpose, that a half dozen other buildings, many of them formerly residential, were leased for additional space. MRI started with core capacities around traditional scientific disciplines, predominately chemistry and chemical engineering, microbiology, mechanical and electrical engineering, and food science. In fact, two of MRI’s most “famous” projects were in the latter category. Between 1944 and 1963, the Institute had several contracts with the Folger Coffee Company to work on projects like instant coffee and the mechanics of brewing coffee for an automatic coffee dispenser. MRI also helped M&M candies live up to their claim of “melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” As recounted in the company’s 1985 history, “To keep from melting, the chocolate center of the candies needed a smooth coating applied as sugar syrup. Then the coating could be waxed, polished, and imprinted with the letter “M” before packaging. To be able to use this process profitably, the company had to increase production. MRI developed the prototype of an automatic method for continuously applying the special brightly colored coating to 3,300 pounds of candies per hour in an exact proportion of color and sugar for each little chocolate center. The process also reduced the need for refrigeration and lowered handling costs.” Also, the original “M” was black – MRI worked out the formula to make it white.

Three views of the new MRI campus at 425 Volker Blvd: (l) the original Kimball building; (c) aerial view of the campus built out by the 1970s; (r) the amphitheater behind the old Barstow School building.

With more and larger contracts coming its way, MRI began to plan for a new location, a purpose-built facility that it still occupies at 425 Volker Boulevard. The main building opened in 1955, but additions over the next twenty years included a laboratory expansion, a world-class research library, 5,000 square feet devoted to a state-of-the-art mainframe computer center and acquisition of the old Barstow Sch00l building at 51st and Cherry, on the southeast corner of the MRI campus. The Barstow building became home to non-laboratory dependent disciplines like the Economics and Social Sciences Department (of which I was a member). The Barstow facility also included the old school’s gym, which became an employee gym, and the amphitheatre between the school and the gym buildings, a popular place for lunch, company social gatherings, and the occasional departmental meeting on a nice day.

An early view of the construction of the original KCI airport, for which MRI supplied the construction management plan.

From approximately 1960 to the mid 1980s, MRI’s client-base shifted slightly from a dominance by private industry to a dominance by the public sector, in particular, the federal government. MRI took over operation of the government’s Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in Golden, Colorado, now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; it played a major role in various projects with agencies like NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the US Department of Transportation. There were Department of Defense contracts, including one that identified possible reuses for a number of military bases the government was closing in the early ‘80s. Some of these federal contracts were classified, but a good many dealt with more routine matters, like NASA’s need for an improved system for storage of its more routine materials and equipment. On the local front, MRI developed the construction management program for the build-out of the Kansas City International Airport. It also created “Framework for the Future,” a long-term comprehensive economic development plan for the City of Kansas City, Missouri; a feasibility study for a possible Kansas City World’s Fair; and a study to identify potential development sites along the (then) soon-to-be-opened Bruce R. Watkins Roadway.

MRI’s reputation and that of its leadership brought many famous and important people to the Institute as speakers or recipients of MRI’s annual Citation Award. (l) Senator John Kennedy, speaker, seated beside “Charlie” Kimball, 1959; (c) noted physicist Edward Teller, Citation recipient 1960; (r) Walter Cronkite, Citation recipient, 1979

When I was associated with the Institute, I was often asked about what “mysteries” MRI holds, and if this or that project really did happen. The short answer is this: Most of MRI’s project work, if not officially classified (a small percentage at best), is most definitely proprietary. I never worked on anything requiring more than the most basic clearance, nor did many of my projects involve non-disclosure agreements. I’m quite certain there is much project work that I would never have known about, nor would many of the employees. But I can confirm that sometime in the late 1960s, early 1970s, they conducted studies on marijuana use, as over the years I’ve had at least two or three people confirm they served as subjects. They spoke fondly, if hazily, of the experience.

I left the Institute in 1990 as an employee, though I remained a contract employee for special projects over the rest of the 90s. So I am not able to speak to their current history, and not surprisingly, the Institute’s promotional materials do not cover their projects in much detail. In 2011, the Institute changed its legal name to MRIGlobal, an apparent nod to the fact that its interests and influence had grown well beyond its midwest origins. But I noticed in researching the recent history that it still often refers to itself as Midwest Research Institute. It’ll always be MRI as far as I’m concerned. It was a remarkable place to land as I did in 1982, a graduate degree in public administration in hand, but no real plan for where that degree would lead me. Gratefully, it led me to MRI, and what I learned there led me beyond its campus to a smorgasbord of professional adventures. It was exactly as Charlie Kimball described in his book:

“Many people at MRI are doing things that they never dreamed of doing. Researchers don’t move deliberately and self-consciously from one discipline to another, but they may begin the shift to a new scientific activity by working on the fringes of some other program. Professional growth is evolutionary, and a number of individuals over time at MRI have developed impressive generalist backgrounds. Through the years, MRI has seen the emergence of a new type within a research institute: the professional who is flexible, who is interested in the scientific method irrespective of the particular science to which it seems technically to belong. Research institutes are the ideal environment for such individuals to develop to their fullest capabilities.”

Next week, there’ll be a photo montage of some more of the vintage MRI photos that give a glimpse into research technology of yesteryear.

[Photos: All photos included here, with the exception of those in the top banner, were taken from Charles N. Kimball’s book, “Midwest Research Institute: Some Recollections of the First 50 years, 1945-1975]

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