Abstract: Importing PhDs: How the Research Triangle Recruited Tech Firms and Invented the Creative Class City, 1953-1980

Alex Sayf Cummings


In 1955, a coterie of academics, business leaders, and politicians set out to change North Carolina's economic course by promoting the idea of a "Research Triangle" that embraced Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. Leading universities such as Duke and North Carolina State provided the anchors for a new metropolitan economy that outside firms in fields such as computing and pharmaceuticals would find irresistible. Boosters hoped that the Triangle would prompt Tar Heels with advanced degrees to stay home and cultivate local enterprise and innovation. North Carolinians campaigned vigorously to persuade corporate leaders that the Triangle cities offered a pleasant, culturally sophisticated milieu where the scientists that high-tech firms hoped to employ would be happy to live. They leveraged the academic and cultural institutions of the region as a source of value to attract better educated workers, whose high wages and tax revenues would elevate the standard of living for all. By 1980, Research Triangle Park had succeeded in drawing major employers (such as IBM and Burroughs-Wellcome), and "the Triangle" became a commonplace of metropolitan parlance. Yet whether the elites who envisioned the Triangle succeeded in achieving their goals—an early instance of pursuing a specifically "post-industrial" development strategy—remains unclear.