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. A basic lack of knowledge of polymer molecules existed when Wallace Carothers began his work there. Wallace and his team were the first to investigate the acetylene family. In 1931, the research team at DuPont 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 had made significant steps toward creating a synthetic silk. He created a new fiber formed by the polymerizing process and known as a condensation reaction. Wallace refined the process by adjusting the equipment so that the water was distilled and removed from the process making for stronger fibers. In 1935, DuPont patented the new fiber known as nylon. Nylon, the miracle fiber, was introduced to the world in 1938. Fortune Magazine reported it as the first completely new synthetic fiber made by man. It further stated that “In over four thousand years, textiles have seen only three basic developments mercerized cotton, synthetic dyes and rayon. Nylon is a fourth.” Nylon was first used for fishing line, surgical sutures, and toothbrush bristles. DuPont touted its new fiber as being “as strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web,” and first demonstrated nylon stockings not to a scientific society, but to the three thousand women’s club members at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In 1942, nylon went to war in the form of parachutes and tents. Nylon stockings were the favorite gift of American soldiers to impress British women. Today, nylon is still used in all types of apparel and is the second most used synthetic fiber. The company purposefully did not register “nylon” as a trademark – choosing to allow the word to enter the American vocabulary as a synonym for “stockings.”
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. Despite an amazing career, and holding more than fifty patents; the inventor ended his own life in depression.