Image of Arthur D. Little's Arthur D. Little's "Silk Purse"
“Silk Purse,” Arthur D. Little, Inc., 1921

Making silk purses from sows’ ears and flying a lead balloon are timeworn clichés for impossibility. This made it all the more stunning when Arthur D. Little, Inc., announced they had succeeded at both. Shown here is one of their silk purses, spun from gelatin fibers made out of pigs’ ears. Founded by MIT alumnus Arthur D. Little, the eponymous company was the world’s first management consulting firm, contracting with industrial firms to solve problems that seemed impossible. Until the 1950s, the company was headquartered at 30 Memorial Drive in Cambridge, allowing for easy access to MIT for recruiting and consulting. The ADL report announcing the company's unusual achievement concluded, “This making of silk purses of sows’ ears was merely a diversion of chemistry at play. When chemistry puts on overalls and gets down to business, things begin to happen that are of importance to industry and to commerce.”

Among his many contributions to MIT, Arthur D. Little co-founded the MIT School of Chemical Engineering Practice with Professor William H. Walker in 1922. As a member of the Chemical Engineering Department Visiting Committee, he suggested the concept of “unit operations,” which would revolutionize the discipline.

Loaned to the MIT Museum by Kenan and Andrea Sahin.

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  • If The above purse is the remains of the original blue tasseled purse imaged in the treatise “on the making of a silk purses of sow’s ears”

    it appears as if the experiment failed, that indeed a silk purse was not made of a sow’s ear, as a genuine silk purse made in 1921 and preserved in a glass case since then under conditions identical to this one, would be as beautiful and dark blue as it was the day it was made, but rather, something that just temporarily appeared to be silk was made, but was not the genuine article specifically due to it’s chemical composition. the appearance of being a thing, does not MAKE it the thing, obviously, and the proverb, “one cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” is unchallenged by Mr. Little.

    14 Dec 13 at 4:07 pm