February 16, 1937: US Patent #2,071,250 is granted to Dr. Wallace Hume Carothers via DuPont, Inc. The patent was for synthetic linear condensation polymers. It covered the polymer and the process for making it and drawing the substance into a thread. It is a plastic called nylon. It is a thermoplastic silky substance. Thermoplastic means it can both melt and freeze. Nylon was first created in the DuPont research laboratories on February 28, 1935 and was granted patent protection nearly two years later.
Carothers was born in Iowa in 1896 and even as a child, he could be found playing with tools and mechanical devices. His first contact with higher education was at a business college and he completed the accounting and secretarial curriculum in 1915. He went on to Tariko College and did so well in chemistry, he began teaching the subject. He received his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1924 with high honors, receiving the Carr Fellowship for the 1923-24 year. He was persuaded to move to DuPont even after admitting he suffered from “neurotic spells of diminished capacity.” He committed suicide by taking cyanide on April 28, 1937 at the age of 41.
On February 24, 1938 the new product was on the market for consumers. Hog-bristle toothbrushes were replaced with nylon-bristled ones. The next use was to play out the polymer into a fine thread and create a new form of stocking. Silk stockings were replaced by the new “nylons.” The nylons were unlike today’s product. They were two seamed socks which covered about 2/3 of a woman’s leg with sheer fabric. During World War II, first silk and then nylon became scarce as it was needed for the war effort. Nylon riots erupted from August 1945 to March 1946 due to the shortage. DuPont tried to supply both markets without total success.
Nylon was manufactured in the hopes of taking over the silk market. During the war, it was used for parachutes and flak vests. It was also used in the manufacture of tires. Today, the fiber is used in a wide range of products. It is used in fabrics, bridal veils, carpets, and rope. Nylon is an essential ingredient in mechanical gears and injection molding. Solid nylon is molded into many household products, such as combs. It is used in glass-filled variants in a number of commercial applications.
“There doesn’t seem to be much to report concerning my experiences outside of chemistry. I’m living out in the country now with three other bachelors, and they being socially inclined have all gone out in tall hats and white ties, while I after my ancient custom sit sullenly at home.” – Wallace H. Carothers
“My nervousness, moroseness and vacillation get worse as time goes on, and the frequent resort to drinking doesn’t bring about any permanent improvement. 1932 looks pretty black to me just now.” – Wallace. H. Carothers
“To this audience . . . I am making the first announcement of a brand new chemical textile fiber. . . . Though wholly fabricated from such common raw materials as coal, water, and air, nylon can be fashioned into filaments as strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web, yet more elastic than any of the common natural fibers.” – Charles Stine
“I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” – Billy Wilder
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2010. Editor’s update: Nylon is one of the most commonly used synthetic polymers. The “synthetic” portion means simply that it is manmade. “Polymers” are compounds or mixtures of compounds that have repeating structural units which are created through a process called “polymerization” (which itself means the process of stringing together monomer molecules using a chemical process). There are both low and high density polyethylene polymers which are seen in bottles and pipes. The other well known organic polymer is Teflon, accidentally discovered in 1938 by Roy Plunkett while he was working for Kinetic Chemicals, which was founded by DuPont and General Motors.
Also on this day: King Tut – In 1923, Howard Carter opened the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
Nylon – In 1937. Nylon was patented.
Altmark Incident – In 1940, the German ship, Altmark, was boarded by cutlass wielding soldiers.
What Is our Emergency? – In 1968, 9-1-1 service began.