Nylon : the birth of a synthetic textile
Without the commercial urge to easily produce artificial silk we would not have nylon in our lives. Personally, I would love to have no nylon in my clothing. In my fantasy, I’d rather have silk, wouldn’t you?
However, I can appreciate the need to manufacture something more practical, stable and affordable.
In reality, nylon’s reputation in recent decades has not been good. Tastes have changed, as we’ll find out here. But the invention of nylon is a revelation in perseverance and testing until something works.
It seems we are still in the early years of using synthetic materials and no doubt there are some staggering inventions to come — perhaps not in our lifetime. Until then, let’s find out how nylon came to be. What is the story of nylon? First, in this post, let’s find out the what, who, when, why, and how?
What is nylon?
Let’s get scientific.
Nylon is a manmade polymer. Polymers are constructed from long chains of large molecules. DNA, silk, protein and wood are all polymers. A range of chemicals are combined to create a polymer. A condensation reaction binds those chemicals to make a polymer fibre. Such fibres are found to be extremely tough and durable. This makes for strong and solid shaping. Nylon is the first known fully synthetic fibre and is made completely from petrochemicals.
Who invented nylon?
Harvard academic and chemist Dr Wallace Hume Carothers is credited with the invention. He was born in 1896 in Iowa, USA.
Sadly, in April 1937 he apparently killed himself with a fatal dose of cyanide before nylon was even introduced to the general public. But why?
Of course, we can never be sure. As a Harvard professor in 1924, Carothers researched the chemical structures of polymers. In the 1920s scientists disagreed on the exact make-up of a polymer and so more research was needed.
1920s: the experimental years
In 1920, chemical company DuPont acquires the technology to manufacture artificial silk in America (later known as rayon) and forms the Du Pont Fibersilk Company.
In 1927-8, DuPont asks Dr Carothers to head an academic research team to explore polymers. This is based at the DuPont Experimental Station, Wilmington in Delaware, USA. Carothers eventually agrees and goes on to discover the first neoprene and the first ever synthetic fibre (later branded as nylon).
After several years, Carothers was increasingly unhappy with the way that his department was under pressure to deliver commercial value and wished to return to academic study. Could this have been at least partly responsible for his suicide in 1937?
Why was nylon invented?
Let’s get technical.
Previously, DuPont had manufactured gunpowder and dynamite. The company was seeking other avenues following accusations of monopolisation. It sought to improve its public image through the promotion of chemical research. In 1928, The team at DuPont’s information-gathering Experimental Station conducted research into acetylene. Neoprene – a synthetic rubber – was discovered.
DuPont had already been experimenting with semi-synthetic material such as rayon, cellophane and celluloid — all derived from natural plant cellulose.
It then turned attention to making a completely synthetic fibre that could cheaply replace silk.
The DuPont team worked with esters — compounds which react with water. It discovered a polyester which could be incorporated into a fibre. It wasn’t very heat-resistant so they worked on amides — derived from ammonia.
Carothers’ team developed a strong polyamide fibre which could withstand heat and solvents. This eventually became the material we know as nylon.
1930s and the birth of nylon
The DuPont research team had been experimenting with an alternative to silk. Silk had previously been imported from Japan. Public relations between the USA and Japan were not at their best. Trade relations began to suffer as a result and the price of silk (and silk stockings) was often fluctuating.
By 1934 DuPont had created the first synthetic replacement for silk and Carothers’ team was constantly refining the process to make the fibres stronger. The experimental team comes under great pressure to produce a more commercial synthetic fibre and creates multiple versions of the fibre to find the strongest, most commercial. After many experiments, this new fibre becomes the first ever nylon.
So, by 1935, Carothers had found and developed a robust enough fibre and nylon was born. Nylon is patented by DuPont in 1935 and commercially introduced in 1938, a year after the suicide of Carothers. Carothers was never particularly interested in the commercial side of his work, he was first and foremost dedicated to chemical knowledge and discovery.
By early 1938, the first nylon stockings are produced.
In 1939 commercial production of nylon begins. Nylon resin and nylon fibre comes to replace more expensive materials such as metal, silk and cotton.
Natural fibres have been with us for a very long time. It is the Industrial Revolution which has allowed and encouraged the discovery of synthetics. This need to make things cheaply in order to turn a greater profit is still very much part of Western culture today. But there has also been a yearning to produce materials that are easy to maintain with better durability under wear and tear.
In the next nylon-tinged post we will step into the time machine (which may or may not be made from nylon) and find out how we have got to the love/hate relationship that we now seem to have with this purely synthetic fabric. See it here.
sources and recommended reading
Science and Corporate Strategy by David A. Hounshell and John Kenly Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
The Tragic Story of Wallace Hume Carothers, Financial Times, 29/11/2008
Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain by Gerard Colby Zilg, 1974 —extended, re-written version is called Du Pont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain, 1984.