Thursday, June 29, 2006

Art and Madness Series~ Science

An American chemist, Wallace Hume Carothers (1896-1937), was enticed in 1928 to leave a prestigious teaching position and instead head a new research group at the DuPont company.

In 1930, his researchers discovered that it was possible to make a strong new synthetic fiber out of chains of large molecules called polymers. The next year, Carothers applied for the first of many patents related to these "linear condensation polymers." On February 16, 1937 he was granted patent number 2,071,250. The DuPont company coined the name "nylon," mimicking the words "cotton" and "rayon."

Carothers noted in his patent application that the strands of his artificial fiber were "pliable, strong and elastic" and that they resembled silk. Nylon has proven itself important as a cheap alternative for silk, and it has been used in countless products, from tennis rackets to toothbrushes.

In 1938, DuPont went public, announcing the invention of nylon, "the first man-made organic textile fabric prepared entirely from new materials from the mineral kingdom." Nylon stocking, modeled by women at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and put on sale in 1940, were a huge hit.

Meanwhile, frustrated at times with the flaws of his "silk" superpolymer research, Carothers set aside the project to investigate another interest of his -- cyclic compounds. One of them, he noticed, gave off an intriguing aroma. Marketed as Astrotone, it became the first synthetic musk. The Carothers group also continued to work on another creation, a polymer that became neoprene, or, synthetic rubber.

Sadly, Carothers did not live to see his invention put to good use. Like many other brilliant creators, Carothers was prone to severe attacks of depression. He became obsessed with the notion that his scientific career was a failure, and on April 29, 1937, he committed suicide with cyanide, two days after his 41st birthday.

Despite his worries, Carothers's reputation for genius had been well established in the scientific community. He led the way in showing the usefulness of polymer chemistry, an area of research which engages over half the industrial scientists in the U.S. to this day.

N Posted by Rain at 6/29/2006 06:43:00 AM

1 Comments

  • Blogger Sheila posted at 2:53 AM  
    The DuPont Company is an interesting one. Lost of controversy there - together with General Motors they invented CFC's. Scratch the surface of this one and there is a lot of muck underneath.
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