This Day in History (28-Feb-1935) – Wallace Carothers invents nylon at the DuPont Experimental Station near Wilmington, Delaware

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.



This Day in History (24-Feb-1938) – Du Pont begins commercial production of nylon toothbrush bristles

Toothbrushing tools date back to 3500-3000 BC when the Babylonians and the Egyptians made a brush by fraying the end of a twig. Tombs of the ancient Egyptians have been found containing toothsticks alongside their owners. Around 1600BC, the Chinese developed “chewing sticks” which were made from aromatic tree twigs to freshen breath. The Chinese are believed to have invented the first natural bristle toothbrush made from the bristles from pigs’ necks in the 15th century, with the bristles attached to a bone or bamboo handle. When it was brought from China to Europe, this design was adapted and often used softer horsehairs which many Europeans preferred. The first toothbrush of a more modern design was made by William Addis in England around 1780 – the handle was carved from cattle bone and the brush portion was still made from swine bristles. In 1844, the first 3-row bristle brush was designed.

The world’s first synthetic fiber – nylon – was discovered in 1935, by a former Harvard professor  Wallace Carothers  working at a DuPont Corporation research laboratory. Later called Nylon 6 by scientists, the revolutionary product comes from chemicals found in petroleum. Interestingly, the first commercial use of revolutionary petroleum product “Nylon” was for toothbrushes, before Nylon became synonym for stockings. On February 24, 1938, the Weco Products Company of Chicago, Illinois, began selling its new “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft” – the earliest toothbrush to use synthetic DuPont nylon bristles.

“Until now, all good toothbrushes were made with animal bristles,” noted a 1938 Weco Products advertisement in Life magazine. “Today, Dr. West’s new Miracle-Tuft is a single exception. It is made with EXTON, a unique bristle-like filament developed by the great DuPont laboratories, and produced exclusively for Dr. West’s.” Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, New Jersey, introduced a competing nylon-bristle toothbrush in 1939.

Interestingly, we’ve been using the same material since the 1938. And we’ve been using the same overall design since the 1780s.