In early 1987, when research team around the world began reporting higher and higher superconductivity temperatures, several scientists at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co in Wilmington, Del., were touched by the fervor spreading throughout the scientific community. It was the spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm by this group of bench scientists—rather than a sudden profit-motivated decision on the part of DuPont senior management—that resulted shortly thereafter in the company’s making a major commitment to superconductivity research.

And within a matter of months, the group had pulled off at least three major breakthroughs. These were made possible to a large extent by a refreshing show of corporate flexibility on the part of DuPont management—flexibility that permitted a kind of interdepartmental science networking not often seen in large-company environments.

Although DuPont has never been in the business of selling products that take advantage of superconductivity technology, the program that got...

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