Wallace Hume Carothers

Wallace Hume Carothers

Wallace Hume Carothers in a characteristically pensive mood, in the early 1930s. Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

Two of the 20th century’s most widely used synthetic polymers—neoprene and nylon—originated in 1930 in the research laboratory of Wallace Hume Carothers (1896–1937) at the DuPont Company. The research that led to these inventions also demonstrated the existence of macromolecules, greatly bolstering the macromolecular theory of Hermann Staudinger.

After high school Carothers attended Capital City Commercial College in Des Moines, Iowa, in a program of accountancy and secretarial administration. He then went on to a four-year college, Tarkio College in Missouri, to complete a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After a year of teaching at the University of South Dakota, he proceeded to the University of Illinois, where he earned his doctorate in 1924. As a young instructor at Harvard University, Carothers was already pursuing research in polymers when DuPont’s Charles Stine recruited him for the fundamental research program that Stine was then organizing. Elmer K. Bolton, Carothers’s immediate boss, asked him to investigate the chemistry of an acetylene polymer that might lead to a synthetic rubber. In April 1930 one of Carothers’s assistants, Arnold M. Collins, isolated a new liquid compound, chloroprene, which spontaneously polymerized to produce a rubberlike solid. The new polymer was similar chemically to natural rubber, which encouraged Bolton to exploit it. Neoprene, as the product was named, was superior to the natural product in some applications and became the first commercially successful, though never inexpensive, specialty rubber.

Wallace Carothers, holding the daughter of Julian Hill, who carried out the original polymerization that led to nylon. Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

Wallace Carothers, in a happier mood, holding Louisa Hill—the daughter of Julian Hill, who carried out the original polymerization that led to nylon. Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

Soon after this discovery, another of Carothers's associates, Julian W. Hill, created a strong, elastic synthetic fiber while trying to produce superpolymers of high molecular weight by reacting glycols and dibasic acids with strong acids under reduced pressure in a molecular still. The resultant early polyesters, however, were problematic: they had such low melting points and high solubility in dry-cleaning solvents that they were not commercially viable. After a few attempts to solve these problems, Carothers discontinued this line of research. But Bolton encouraged him not to give up on the wider field of fibers. When Carothers finally renewed work in that area in early 1934, he and his team used amines rather than glycols to produce polyamides rather than polyesters. Polyamides are synthetic proteins and are more stable than polyesters, which are structurally similar to natural fats and oils. Carothers’s group soon discovered an outstanding polyamide fiber. Bolton played a key role in the development of the discovery, later named “nylon.”

A giant leg, 35 feet high, advertised nylons to the Los Angeles area. Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

A giant leg, 35 feet high, advertised nylons to the Los Angeles area. Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

In the years that followed, Carothers’s scientific creativity was crippled by worsening bouts of depression that finally prompted his suicide in April 1937, just when the true magnitude of the discovery of nylon was becoming apparent. By this time Bolton had decided to commercialize nylon by creating an alternative product to the lucrative silk-stocking market, leaving other applications for later. Nylon went into production in 1939, and the display of the new stockings was a sensation at the World’s Fair in New York that year. With the onset of World War II, nylon was commandeered for war purposes—for example, to make parachute canopies. Once the war was over, sales to civilian consumers skyrocketed.

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