Plastics, Chance, And The Prepared Mind


Carothers was born in Iowa on April 27,1896, the son of a teacher. He studied at the Capital City Commercial College, where his father taught, and his first degree was in accounting. But he soon gravitated to chemistry, and he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1924, a year after he had published his first scientific paper. As a mark of his promise, Carothers was offered a position at Harvard in 1926. But two years later he gave up the prestige of that appointment for the then much less prestigious work of a corporate laboratory.

He did so because the new position suited him far better. Intensely shy, Carothers loved research but dreaded the lectures that professors had to give. At the Du Pont laboratory he could immerse himself wholly in chemistry, especially the chemistry of polymers and the technology of turning them into new products.

The lab that Carothers headed was state-of-the-art, not only in equipment but in personnel, for Du Pont spared no expense to have the best of everything. The result, over the next nine years, would be one of those incandescent periods of human creativity that change the world.

Carothers and his team did much basic research into exactly how polymers form and what is needed for that formation. They developed a whole chemical vocabulary to describe the processes involved. They worked on acetylene, especially on two derivative forms of it with the jawbreaking names of vinylacetylene and divinylacetylene. Acetylene, a gas at room temperatures, had been discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century and was used mostly in welding.

Carothers walked into his boss’s office: “Here is your synthetic textile fabric,” he said. It was nylon.

But Carothers discovered that by adding a chlorine atom, he could produce a synthetic rubber that was actually superior to natural rubber in some ways, especially in heat resistance. The new rubber did not have much commercial use as long as natural rubber was cheap and available. But when the Japanese seized the Malaya rubber plantations in 1941, neoprene, as the substance was called, proved indispensable to Allied victory.

Even more important was Carothers’s investigation into silk. He thoroughly analyzed the natural substance and then began looking for compounds that would duplicate it. One day an assistant, Julian Hill, noticed that when he stuck a glass stirring rod into a gooey mass at the bottom of a beaker the researchers had been investigating, he could draw out threads from it, the polymers forming spontaneously as he pulled. When Carothers was absent one day, Hill and his colleagues decided to see how far they could go with pulling threads out of goo by having one man hold the beaker while another ran down the hall with the glass rod. A very long and very silklike thread was produced.

When Carothers returned to the lab, he was told of the results of this “experiment,” and a major research project was launched. Seven years, and twenty-seven million dollars later, the lab had a thread that was tough, elastic, and heat- and water-resistant and could be woven into fabric inexpensively. Carothers walked into his boss’s office and said, “Here is your synthetic textile fabric.” It was nylon.

On September 21, 1938, Du Pont opened a plant in Seaford, New Jersey, to produce nylon, and the product was an instant commercial success. Nylon stockings proved so superior to the old silk hose that there were near riots at lingerie counters. The new fiber was soon being used to make everything from shower curtains to toothbrush bristles to fishing tackle. Nylon and the multitude of other synthetic fibers that followed were quickly built into a multibillion-dollar industry.

There is no doubt whatever that Wallace Carothers would have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on nylon and neoprene. But Nobels go only to living recipients, and Carothers was dead. In the nine years he headed the organic chemistry lab at Du Font’s Experimental Station, he and his colleagues turned out more than fifty scientific papers and got an equal number of patents that are the foundation of modern polymer chemistry. But Carothers had few outlets other than work—mainly reading and listening to music—and the strain of such sustained production finally proved too much. Two days after his forty-first birthday, on April 29, 1937, he took cyanide in a Philadelphia hotel room and ended his life.

Genius can be a frightful burden.