Back to Home

Science and Engineering

Profile picture for user mgurowi
By Margaret Gurowitz
Mar 31, 2011

By the time Fred Kilmer wrote back to Sir Joseph Lister in 1891, he was able to describe in great detail the Company’s sterilization and manufacturing procedures – including our Aseptic Room, the steam sterilizers and the water filtration system.  These high-tech facilities and pioneering equipment were all made possible by another partnership during the early days of Johnson & Johnson: the partnership between science and engineering as personified by James Wood Johnson and Fred Kilmer.

Mr. Science…meet Mr. Engineering. Fred Kilmer (left) and James Wood Johnson (right)

When James Wood Johnson rented the fourth floor of our first building in 1886 – the small, former wallpaper factory – it was just an empty space with lots of possibilities.  Fast forward a year later, and it was filled with specialized machinery and employees making our early products, thanks to the engineering talents of the youngest of our founding brothers.

James Wood Johnson was born on March 17, 1856 at Crystal Lake, Pennsylvania, the youngest child in his family, and he followed in his brother Robert’s footsteps by attending school at the Wyoming Seminary.  From childhood, James was interested in mechanical things, so it’s no surprise that he began his adult life as an apprentice surveyor with the Pennsylvania Coal Company before joining Seabury & Johnson at age 22.  He started as a “traveler” (which is what members of a company’s sales force were called back then) to learn about the business, but he soon switched to designing machinery that could make medicinal plasters -- Seabury & Johnson’s flagship product -- by machine rather than by hand.  James solved the major problem that was holding back the manufacture of plasters:  Seabury & Johnson could make plasters that were adhesive but had a short shelf-life, or they could make plasters with a long shelf life that weren’t adhesive enough and didn’t stick.  (Blog readers can see that that must have been a, well…sticky problem.)

Some of the machinery in the Johnson & Johnson Plaster Mill in 1912

James Wood Johnson, with his analytical mind and engineering skills, figured out what needed to be done to make the plasters work, and developed machinery that standardized the plaster preparation process to produce consistent, reliable and stable medicinal plasters.  When the Johnson brothers left Seabury & Johnson to start Johnson & Johnson, James brought those skills with him and took charge of the manufacturing facilities he rented in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The first Johnson & Johnson building in 1886: outside…

Over the course of our first few months in business, James was occupied with having machinery designed and installed so that the Company and its first 14 employees could begin operations.  Here’s how Fred Kilmer described him:

“Mr. Johnson is skilled in engineering and it has been a portion of his work to devise and put together machinery, apparatus and systems which have played a notable part in the progress of Johnson & Johnson.”  [ THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. V, No. 8, January, 1913, p. 214]

Here’s some of the medicated plaster making machinery that James Wood Johnson designed for our first building:

…And inside. An 1887 illustration showing some of the early machinery designed by James Wood Johnson.

When Fred Kilmer joined Johnson & Johnson in 1889, we added a talented and dedicated scientist who joined his scientific skills to James Wood Johnson’s engineering skills.  Under Kilmer’s direction, the Company was soon designing and building aseptic manufacturing facilities, steam sterilizers and more.  Science had the ideas, and engineering set them in motion.

1899 vacuum steam vapor sterilizer at Johnson & Johnson, one of two in operation at the time.

In 1894 Johnson & Johnson hosted 70 retail pharmacists from Philadelphia on a tour of the Company in its eighth year of business.   It was a big event in New Brunswick and it made the front page of the local newspaper.  The New Brunswick Daily Times reported that one of the highlights for the visitors was seeing for themselves the combination of science and engineering that made possible the products they carried in their pharmacies and recommended to their customers.

“The intricate and delicate machinery of the factory, much of it specially invented for the firm, also excited the greatest interest and admiration. Several hours were consumed in the inspection of the works and every moment seemed fraught with new revelations of the capacity of the factory, the perfection of its management and the scientific skill which oversees every operation.”  [The New Brunswick Times, Monday Evening, November 12, 1894, p. 1, “Druggists Visit Our City as the Guests of Johnson & Johnson.”]

Cotton storage shed at Johnson & Johnson, 1901. Alert blog readers will notice the horse-drawn wagon.

One early Johnson & Johnson innovation was making cotton absorbent enough for it to be used in surgical dressings.   Ordinary cotton fiber had oils and other “constituents,” as Fred Kilmer wrote, that rendered it less than ideally absorbent.  As part of the manufacturing and sterilization process, the cotton had to be washed and for that, we needed ever larger quantities of water as our business grew.  With the Raritan River on the Company’s doorstep, finding water was not difficult -- but the Raritan water had to be filtered and purified…which is where science and engineering came together again.

A section of the water filtration system

When the Company built a large capacity water filtration system in the first decade of the 1900s, it was yet another partnership between science and engineering.

One of the decidedly less glamorous aspects of the Company’s early engineering efforts: digging a tunnel for the water filtration system.

Engineering gave our early water filtration system the capacity to treat the large amounts of water needed.  Science made sure it produced water that was bacteriologically pure for use in our sterile dressing manufacture.  And our tradition of helping the community led us to lend that filtration system created by our science-engineering partnership to help the citizens of New Brunswick through a water shortage.

Water cooler in the Johnson & Johnson laboratory, with filtered water

That water filtration system also supplied filtered water for our employees to drink, and was used to fill the employee swimming pool in the Nineteen Teens.  If Kilmer House readers were to visit our World Headquarters in New Brunswick, and if they had the ability to see through solid objects, they would be able to see some of the remnants of that water filtration system under the parking lots near the Museum building on our New Brunswick campus.

Although James Wood Johnson and Fred Kilmer are no longer with us, the partnership between science and engineering they started continues today throughout the Company… with the many scientists and engineers who develop products at our operating companies around the world.

Share this article

Read 1 comment
Full name will be displayed as entered.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
By submitting your comments, you agree that your comments may be made available to the public. All comments will be reviewed before posting, and if approved, will be shared publicly on the site. Please do not include any information and/or comments that you would like to remain private. Since this blog is about history, topics that don’t directly relate to the history of Johnson & Johnson and its operating companies won’t be posted.. Issues not related to the history of J&J, including any product complaints, will be forwarded to the appropriate Johnson & Johnson team for follow-up as appropriate. This site will not publish any comments that have inappropriate language... so be nice! We will use the information you submit in accordance with our  Privacy Policy.
Elisabeth King
APRIL 04, 2011 08:57 AM

the name of the wallpaper factory is JANEWAY WALL PAPER FACTORY. there is a Janeway Street in Highland Park off Cleveland Avenue.