The tragic life of the man who invented nylon

Wallace Carothers didn't live long. He didn't even live long enough to see his most famous invention put to work. But he did leave a lasting impression - especially on women's legs.

Wallace Carothers was born in Iowa, at the last gasp of the 1800s. He was to be shaped, and then to shape, the modern era, but he wasn't going to see it. The oldest of four children, he was always described as melancholy. Although he was a good student, and generally liked, he was closest to one of his sisters. They supported each other throughout their lives, including when Carothers went off to college in Missouri. He was still in school just when World War I broke out. So many young men went off to war that there was an acute shortage of faculty. Carothers had been supporting himself by teaching accounting, but when the war hit, the college made him, by default, the head ot he chemistry department while he was still studying.

He found himself drawn to the science, and went to grad school, and then to a mostly-research position at Harvard. He liked research, but not teaching, which is why he jumped when Du Pont offered him a position at was going to be a new type of institution. Mostly companies either paid inventors for their inventions or contracted researchers to solve specific problems or come up with specific products. Du Pont wanted to start a department that was to focus solely on basic research. People would be paid to pursue promising ideas, rather than just solve specific problems.

The tragic life of the man who invented nylon

Carothers jumped at the chance, and soon had a product Du Pont was interested in. By combining certain chemicals with a precise amount of water, he noticed that they grouped together and produced fibers. The problem was, the fibers were too weak to be useful. For some reason, the process would start off great, and then get weaker as more fibers formed. It took some time, and some staring, to realize what was going wrong - dripping. As the fibers were formed, the excess water left them, and dripped right back into the concoction, making the process weaker and weaker. It was simply a matter of rearranging the equipment so the water from the fully-formed fibers didn't go right back into the pot, and a new fabric was born. Carothers called it nylon.

He invented it, from the point of view of the world, just in time. It was 1935 when Carothers perfected the process. In 1937, he learned that his sister had died suddenly. The loss cast him into a depression that spiraled lower, and in 1937, he committed suicide.

When another war came along, and bringing in silk from Asia was first perilous and then impossible, nylon became the base fabric for the World War II effort. Parachutes, tents, ropes, ponchos - anything that was fabric was most often made of nylon. Carothers inadvertently supplied a war that he never lived to see.

[Via PBS, CHF, PBS]