After obtaining my diploma of Perito chimico industriale (Industrial Chemistry Engineer), on 1st October, 1962 I was hired by Montecatini - then Italy's major chemical company - with an initial 3-month trial period at their Professional Training Center in Milan and a gross monthly salary of It£ 75,000.
Having successfully completed my trial period, on 1st January, 1963 I was assigned to their Institute for Resin Research and Applications (IRAR, later to become the Resin Research Centre, CRR)at Castellanza (Varese), the first month in a lab doing application reseearch on plastic laminates then in another lab on ureic adhesives.
Montecatini's IRAR/CRR, 19 to 21 y.o.
The thermosetting resins involved - made with formaldehyde and urea and marketed under the Xilocolla brand - were used in the furniture industry as glues for chip panels, plywoods, etc. My job consisted in testing our production and experimental adhesives, and those made by our German and American competitors, for stability over time, tensile stregnth, and so on.
Presses to produce plywood and chip panels
It was not a terribly inspiring job, also in consideration of its distance from Milan (33 Km on my Vespa 125 in any kind of weather) and a very bad cafeteria that resulted in a long-lasting gastritis.
Vespa 125 Piaggio
The final crisis occurred on a Friday afternoon in mid July, 1964 when I was contemplating leaving in the evening for a sea-side weekend in Liguria. Our second-level manager dropped by out almost deserted lab, looked around and told me to follow him, leading through the underpass connecting our lab area to the plant on the other side of the road and stopping in front of a large cylindrical tank.
He then said: "Floriani, tomorrow morning a freight car will arrive from our Novara plant holding 25 tons of urea solution to be trasferred here".
Seeing my perplexed reaction to the news, he added: "You will come to work tomorrow and Sunday, every hour you will take a temperature reading, every two hours you will collect a 250 cc sample and hand it over to our analytical lab".
Montecatini's Castellanza plant
I went to work Saturday, but in the evening I left for Liguria. Monday morning I was summoned by our deputy director who told me that my resignation would be welcome, the statutory one month’s notice waived. I replied that my resignation letter had long been in my desk drawer and handed it over. Thus I quit my first job with a profound sense of relief, and my severance pay allowed me a 3-week vacation .
Italian Chemical Research in the 1960s
Our lab was also engaged in 'R & D' activities on ureic adhesives, basically trying to copy the far better German and US glues.
In truth, the case of our thermosetting resins was more complex than that of thermoplastic resins.
Different reaction to heat for thermoplastic (above) and thermosetting resins (below)
Once solidified, the polymer chains of thermoplastics resemble bunches of spaghetti, held together by weak Van der Waals links and therefore exhibiting a low melting point. On the other hand, the structure of thermoset polymers is a spatial lattice much more resistant to heat: it does not melt but carbonises - and can be investigated only with X-ray crystallography, a very complex and costly procedure.
Our experimental approach was therefore more in line with 'cuisine' than science, something like:
"Let's try adding a bit of this and a bit of that, and see what happens."
Typically, our new 'recipes' started with small quantities (500 ml) followed by tests of their physical/chemical properties. If the latter showed some promise, a larger semi-industrial batch of 250 liters would be prepared which oftentimes proved disappointing and was therefore abandoned, without however throwing the stuff away but adding it to our standard production batches of Xilocolla.
One cold February monday morning the telephone of my then boss rang, and his face grew darker and darker as he answered the call.
It came from one of our best customers, ABET in Bra: they were reporting that no liquid glue was coming out of their spray nozzles, and an inspection of the nozzle pipes had revealed that they contained a marble-hard mass. They also signified that if the situation was not rectified promptly, they would cancel all their outstanding orders and find a different supplier.
The problem had presumably been caused by the addition of one of our 'bad recipes'. After hanging up, our boss rounded up a team of three lab blue-collars, equipped them with hammers and chisels, and they all left hurriedly in a car, bound for Bra .
Italian Industrial Relations in the 1960s
Relations between employers and employees were rather somber at the time. A few significant examples:
At Castellanza, white- and blue-collar employees had separate access gates. On exiting, blue collars had to pull the lever on a gadget called Imparziale, thereby activating randomly its green or red light, the latter implying a body search by gate security. One day an oldish blue collar from my lab was foolish enough to pocket a couple of small plastic bags, got the red light on exit, was searched and summarily fired for the theft of something worth a few cents.
An Imparziale device
Montecatini's headquarters were in Milan, in a building occupying an entire city block.
The main entrance was reserved to executives and managers, while common employees entered through gates on the three other sides.
A great trade union victory was considered not having the gates barred by a portcullis at 8:45 AM and only re-opened at 12:30, thus causing late-comers to lose a half-day if showing up to work 15 minutes after the official starting time.
Executive entrance to Montecatini HQ
Montecatini's HQ had another curious feature: continuous elevators, with no doors and a string of platforms in constant, slow motion to step on in order to change floors.
On the landing in front of all elevators was the desk of an usher, whom all employess were required to show the signed permit formally authorising moving from one floor to another in the same building.
A continuous elevator