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Wallace Carothers - History of Nylon

Also known as Wallace Hume Carothers

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Wallace Carothers - History of Nylon

Wallace Carothers - History of Nylon

Illustration by Mary Bellis
Wallace Carothers can be considered the father of the science of man-made polymers and the man responsible for the invention of nylon and neoprene. The man was a brilliant chemist, inventor and scholar and a troubled soul. Despite an amazing career, Wallace Carothers held more than fifty patents; the inventor ended his own life.

Wallace Carothers - Background

Wallace Carothers was born in Iowa and first studied accounting and later studied science (while teaching accounting) at Tarkio College in Missouri. While still an undergraduate student, Wallace Carothers became the head of the chemistry department. Wallace Carothers was talented in chemistry but the real reason for the appointment was a personnel shortage due to the war effort (WWI). He received both a Master's degree and PhD from the University of Illinois and then became a professor at Harvard, where he started his research into chemical structures of polymers in 1924.

Wallace Carothers - Work for DuPont

In 1928, the DuPont chemical company opened a research laboratory for the development of artificial materials, deciding that basic research was the way to go - not a common path for a company to follow at the time.

Wallace Carothers left his position at Harvard to lead Dupont's research division. A basic lack of knowledge of polymer molecules existed when Wallace Carothers began his work there. Wallace Carothers and his team were the first to investigate the acetylene family of chemicals.

Neoprene & Nylon

In 1931, DuPont started to manufacture neoprene, a synthetic rubber created by Carothers' lab. The research team then turned their efforts towards a synthetic fiber that could replace silk. Japan was the United States' main source of silk, and trade relations between the two countries were breaking apart.

By 1934, Wallace Carothers had made significant steps toward creating a synthetic silk by combining the chemicals amine, hexamethylene diamine and adipic acid to create a new fiber formed by the polymerizing process and known as a condensation reaction. In a condensation reaction, individual molecules join with water as a byproduct.

Wallace Carothers refined the process (since the water produced by the reaction was dripping back into the mixture and weakening the fibers) by adjusting the equipment so that the water was distilled and removed from the process making for stronger fibers.

According to Dupont

"Nylon emerged from research on polymers, very large molecules with repeating chemical structures, that Dr. Wallace Carothers and his colleagues conducted in the early 1930s at DuPont's Experimental Station. In April 1930, a lab assistant working with esters - compounds which yield an acid and an alcohol or phenol in reaction with water - discovered a very strong polymer that could be drawn into a fiber. This polyester fiber had a low melting point, however. Carothers changed course and began working with amides, which were derived from ammonia. In 1935, Carothers found a strong polyamide fiber that stood up well to both heat and solvents. He evaluated more than 100 different polyamides before choosing one [nylon] for development."

Nylon - Miracle Fiber

In 1935, DuPont patented the new fiber known as nylon. Nylon, the miracle fiber, was introduced to the world in 1938.

In a 1938 Fortune Magazine article it was written that "nylon breaks the basic elements like nitrogen and carbon out of coal, air and water to create a completely new molecular structure of its own. It flouts Solomon. It is an entirely new arrangement of matter under the sun, and the first completely new synthetic fiber made by man. In over four thousand years, textiles have seen only three basic developments aside from mechanical mass production: mercerized cotton, synthetic dyes and rayon. Nylon is a fourth."

Wallace Carothers - A Tragic End

In 1936, Wallace Carothers married Helen Sweetman, a fellow employee at DuPont. They had a daughter, but tragically Wallace Carothers committed suicide before the birth of this first child. It was likely that Wallace Carothers was a severe manic-depressive, and the untimely death of his sister in 1937 added to his depression.

A fellow Dupont researcher, Julian Hill, had once observed Carothers carrying what turned out to be a ration of the poison cyanide. Hill remarked that Carothers could list all the famous chemists who had committed suicide. In April of 1937, Wallace Hume Carothers consumed that ration of poison himself and added his own name to that list.

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