Accidental Discoveries – Nylon

July 26, 2010 | In: Science facts

There is a saying that “it is better to be lucky than smart.” It may not really be better, but the story of nylon seems to show that it certainly helps.

The story began when Wallace Hume Carothers was brought to the Du Pont chemical company. Carothers started a program aimed at producing synthetic (man-made) materials like the natural substances cellulose, silk, and rubber. Although by 1935 his group had contributed valuable knowledge in these areas, Carothers had just about decided that their efforts to produce a synthetic fiber like silk were a failure. Then an accident occurred when his chemists were just “fooling around” in the laboratory. This accident turned the failure into an enormous success that was advertised at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as “Nylon, the Synthetic Silk Made from Coal, Air, and Water!”

The basic material that formed nylon (a man-made material called a polyamide, having a structure similar to that of silk) had already been made, but it didn’t seem to have any useful properties, so it was put aside on the laboratory shelf. Instead, the chemists chose to work on the polyester series. These were man-made substances that were softer and dissolved more easily than the polyamide. They were themselves simpler to work with in the laboratory.

While working with one of these softer materials, chemist Julian Hill noted that if he gathered a small ball on the end of a glass rod and stretched it out, it formed a thread that was very silky in appearance. One day when the boss was downtown, Hill and his fellow chemists began fooling around with the polyester plastic. They gathered a ball of the melted material on two stirring rods. One of the chemists took one of the rods and ran down the hall to see how far he could draw out the stretched fiber before it broke. They were amazed at how silky and strong the stretched fiber was.

Although the polyester they used in this way melted too easily to be used for cloth, they thought of using the polyamide that they had put aside earlier. When they tried the stretching trick with the polyamide, it worked the same way. The fiber became very strong. This is what the company called nylon. Nylon became the biggest money-maker the Du Pont company ever had.

Du Pont began to make women’s hose out of nylon. But just when American women were learning how wonderfully strong “nylons” were (they didn’t run as often as the old silk stockings), they were taken off the market. This was because nylon was discovered just before World War II and it turned out to be the very best material for making parachutes. American women were even asked to turn in their nylons to be melted down and made into parachutes!

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