1937 Fifty Years Ago

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Katharine Hepburn said that nylons are the invention of the devil, but the culprit reponsible for the synthetic material was in fact Wallace H. Carothers, assisted by a team of chemists at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. On February 16 Carothers obtained a patent for nylon and the process for making it. Three years later ladies’ nylon hose became available, and Du Pont sold 64 million pairs; before long, nylon was being used to make everything from cargo nets, guitar strings, and clothing to carpets, brush bristles, and artificial fur.

When Du Pont contacted him in 1927, Carothers was teaching chemistry at Harvard, where he was free to pursue his own research interests. The explosives firm offered the thirty-one-year-old a wage hike, the best of assistants, and a job as head of their new “pure” science laboratory in Wilmington, Delaware. Carothers hesitated; as an industrial chemist, wouldn’t his research be restricted to projects of commercial promise? Du Pont insisted otherwise, and Carothers discovered they meant it—for the while—when he joined them in February 1928: “Nobody asks any question as to how how I am spending my time or what my plans are for the future,” he wrote a friend. “Apparently it is all up to me.”

The chemist chose to explore the mysteries of polymerization, the creation of compounds of large molecular weight by uniting two or more molecules of the same kind. Landmark papers on the subject issued from his laboratory, increasing Du Font’s prestige but not its profits. It was the incidental discoveries made in the process of Carothers’s research that gave Du Pont a return on its investment: neoprene, a synthetic rubber, was invented in 1930, as was a peculiar molten polymer that could be made into a strong, pliable fiber. The fiber had traits that made it unsuitable for commercial use, however, and further research seemed unfruitful. Carothers put it aside.

But the Depression had struck, and Du Pont regarded its elite scientists less benevolently. To Carothers’s disappointment, the company began riding herd on the laboratory to refine the abandoned fiber for textile use. Work on it resumed in 1934, and by 1935 a polymer with the necessary attributes was found. Carothers was nonetheless unenthusiastic about his work, writing that he was now obliged to “regard scientific contributions as an occasional and accidental byproduct.…” He became disturbed by the conviction that he was a failure as a scientist, and fell prey to attacks of depression and incapacitating breakdowns. Only three weeks after Carothers received the nylon patent, he swallowed cyanide and died in a Philadelphia hotel room.

• February 5: Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposes what is called his “courtpacking” scheme, intended to overcome the conservative judiciary’s power to block New Deal legislation. The scheme fails, but the political pressure brings about Supreme Court decisions more favorable to the administration.

• March 1: U.S. Steel signs a contract with the United Steel Workers, a significant victory for organized labor.