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RTI Stories

RTI Plants its Roots in the Triangle area

“There’s nothing here but pine trees and possums!”

In the mid-1950s, the idea of a Research Triangle Park and Institute was a compelling one; it just needed an equally compelling motive. And that motive was supplied by the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite, which cast a gloomy shadow on America's seemingly inferior scientific accomplishments. With Americans suddenly feeling the fervent desire to catch up, the Research Triangle Committee realized it needed more than a concept to secure money. It required a specific geographic location for the research park and institute–in a word, land.

Enter Karl Robbins, a textile magnate who agreed to buy and develop a large swath of property for the proposed park, calling it a "wonderful idea and a moneymaker." Real-estate developer Romeo Guest was authorized to secure options to purchase up to 5,000 acres of land in southeastern Durham County, for which purpose Robbins formed a for-profit company called Pinelands Corp.

The timing could not have been worse, since a national economic recession was under way, nearly derailing the project. In August of 1958, North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges sought advice from Archie K. Davis, who had become Wachovia's board chairman following the death of Bob Hanes in late 1957. Davis proposed turning the Research Triangle Committee into a nonprofit foundation, which would buy the land at cost and without a profit to Robbins' Pinelands Corp. The profits from future land sales would support the foundation in developing the park.

The Research Triangle Committee took Davis' suggestions to heart and promptly chartered the Research Triangle Foundation. Davis then hit the road on a major fundraising campaign, netting $1.25 million in 60 days. "The corporate citizens of North Carolina saw that, if successful, such a venture could turn out to be exceedingly helpful to the economy of the state," he told North Carolina magazine. Ultimately, he raised more than $2 million, of which $500,000 would be devoted to the fledgling Institute.

At 11:41 a.m. on December 29, 1958, articles of incorporation were filed for the Research Triangle Institute. A board of governors and an executive committee representing the university, business, and professional communities was appointed to oversee the new organization's management. Eleven days later, on January 9, 1959, Governor Hodges officially launched Research Triangle Park at a press conference at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel, calling it "one of the most significant events of recent years in North Carolina."

Few in attendance that day could imagine what RTI would become 60 years later. The Institute's assets comprised $500,000 from Davis' fundraising and the promise of a 157-acre campus provided by the foundation. Employee number two, after president George R. Herbert, was William Perkins, who had worked under Herbert as a corporate accountant. "When we got to the park, there was nothing here but pine trees and possums," Perkins recalls. "There were no buildings, so we set up shop in Durham on the second floor of 505 West Chapel Hill Street. There were no partitions. George sat at one end, and I sat at the other. In between was the secretary we shared, although my wife, Nancy, did a lot of the typing."