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RTI Stories

The Origins of RTI and Research Triangle Park

“Having those three universities so close together was a unique situation”

The United States was enjoying a time of great economic expansion in the early 1950s–not that you could tell in North Carolina. As most of America rushed away from assembly-line mechanical production toward new promises in science and technology, the Tar Heel State stayed mired in an old economy. The World War II-fueled growth in manufacturing was over, and the state's legacy industries– tobacco, furniture, textiles, and paper–were eliminating jobs through automation.

Romeo Guest was well aware of the state's desperate need to attract new technology-based industries. As president of Romeo Guest Associates, a large building contractor in Greensboro, he was consumed by the idea of a science-centered business park in North Carolina that could diversify the state's stalled commercial base.

While attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Guest had witnessed the development of Boston's technology corridor, which circled the city along Route 128. The Boston area now pulsed with entrepreneurial energy, much of it supplied by MIT, Harvard, and other local universities. Out west, Stanford University's new research institute was playing a similar role in the industrial development of northern California.

Could the same thing transpire in North Carolina? The state boasted three major institutions of higher learning–Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State College (now North Carolina State University) in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill–each with solid mathematics and science departments, top-notch faculty, and expanding research programs. The universities were also within several miles of each other, a geographic happenstance presenting the possibility of abundant academic resources for a local contract research institute.

Or so Guest mused. He was not alone. Brandon Hodges, North Carolina's former treasurer and an executive at Champion Paper in Canton, North Carolina, was also considering ways to resuscitate the state's moribund economy. So was Walter Harper, who ran North Carolina's department of commerce and industry. "Having those three universities so close together was a unique situation, and the more we thought about it, the more we were convinced they offered us a golden opportunity," Harper later told North Carolina magazine.

The three men met frequently at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel in Raleigh, the state capital, where they would "drink, eat, and dream," Harper said. They also began to impress their ideas upon other business leaders and public officials, including North Carolina governor Luther Hodges (no relation to Brandon Hodges). Guest recalled a meeting with Governor Hodges in his office on December 31, 1954, during which they looked at a map and noted for the first time that the three universities formed the points of a triangle. This revelation provided the names for the endeavor–Research Triangle Institute and Research Triangle Park.