Hume Carothers (b. April 27, 1896, d. April 29, 1937) 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 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.
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 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.
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. DuPont patented
the new fiber as "nylon" the following year.
Polymers are any of a class of natural
or synthetic substances composed of very large molecules called macromolecules
that are multiples of simpler chemical units called monomers. Polymers
make up many of the materials in living organisms, including, for example,
proteins, cellulose, nucleic acids, natural rubber and silk. Those synthesized
in the laboratory have led to such commercially important products as plastics,
synthetic fibers and synthetic rubber.
See also: Polymers
a brief description
Acetylene is a colorless gas and
the simplest and best-known member of the hydrocarbon series (molecules
containing one or more pairs of carbon atoms linked by triple bonds), called
the acetylenic series or alkynes. Explosive on contact with air, it is
stored dissolved under pressure in acetone and used to make neoprene rubber,
plastics, and resins. In metal welding, the oxyacetylene torch mixes and
burns oxygen and acetylene to produce a very hot flame (as high as 6300°F).
Nylon, a synthetic thermoplastic
material introduced in 1938, is a strong elastic, resistant to abrasion
and chemicals and low in moisture absorbency.
from "Fortune Magazine" about nylon circa 1938: "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."
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.
Nylon, the miracle fiber, was introduced
to the world in 1938.