Before he could see his invention, he said goodbye to this life

Wallace Hume Carothers (Burlington, Iowa, April 27, 1896 - Philadelphia, April 29, 1937)

Wallace Hume Carothers, the brightest American chemist of his time, wrote a series of spectacular inventions in nine years of laboratory work, including polymer 66, the first fully synthetic fiber.

Even before the new fabric was given the name 'nylon', he took his own life. He also never saw the nylon stocking. A year and a half after his death, on October 27, 1938, the Du Pont de Nemours company officially announced that it had a special fabric in stock.

On May 15, 1940, five million pairs of "nylons" were put up for sale in American department stores in an unprecedented sales stunt. Thousands of American women fought a real battle to get a pair of new stockings, but there were just no deaths.

They sold out in two hours.

The American firm Du Pont de Nemours of Wilmington, Delaware, was a manufacturer of gunpowder that after World War I had focused on a whole range of products: dyes, celluloid film, synthetic ammonia, film stock, industrial alcohol, rayon threads, you name it.

The Du Pont family was worried because they had to buy all those inventions and so little came out of their own laboratories.

So in 1927 she founded a new center for research, which was given the name Purity Hall, not without some American bombast, so that the scientists who worked there were immediately nicknamed 'virgins'.

DuPont scoured the universities for the brightest scientists and discovered one Wallace Hume Carothers, a 31-year-old brilliant chemist of Scottish descent, at Harvard University.

Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1896, Carothers had previously taught at the universities of South Dakota and Illinois. Carothers hesitated. He doubted whether he would enjoy the freedom of research in industry that he enjoyed at university.

And he wrote, "I suffer from neurotic attacks that sap my strength, which could be a more serious handicap in a company than where I work now." Charles Stine, the director of DuPont's chemical department, reassured him and doubled his salary.

In February 1928 he started working. His assignment: to develop new materials and products at all costs. Eight young researchers, led by Carothers, set off.

Carothers was known for 'never to follow the beaten track', never to walk the beaten track. April 1930 became a mensis mirabilis, a miraculous month in the history of industrial research.

April 17, 1930 dates from the discovery of the basis of what would later be called neoprene: the first synthetic rubber. Neoprene was of great military importance during World War II as the Japanese cut off the rubber supply to the United States.

For example, neoprene was in the nineteen million tires of US military trucks that continued to run trouble-free "in all parts of the world and all seasons" during World War II.

Number 6-6

Carothers sent the eight men with new insights, with suggestions for new compositions. It was his friend and assistant Julian Hill who, twelve days later, came across the phenomenon of "cold drawing" and laid the foundation for nylon.

Carothers himself was out of the house when his co-workers ran through the corridors between the laboratories, dragging the shiny chemical threads behind them. At that time, the new fabric was still soluble in water, melted at a low temperature, and was not yet suitable for weaving clothes.

Mentally, however, Carothers was unbalanced.

He wrote to a friend in those days: 'It is as if I were whirling around in a swivel chair trying to keep my balance by clinging to the corner of an oak table.' Strangely enough, he didn't focus on the new material, but on other issues. He didn't follow through.

Historians believe that he was only interested in pure research, not in direct utility. However, his new director Bolton put pressure on him, which did not immediately promote his mental balance. His father also lost his job due to the Wall Street crash.

In early 1934 he was again told to take care of the new fibres. Carothers refined the instruments, invented dozens of new connections and, as a great source of inspiration, put his assistants back to work. By July 1934, the breakthrough came.

The new product was named 6-6 because the two base chemicals each contain six carbon molecules. The substance only melted at 260 degrees Celsius and was six times stronger than steel. 'That would have been a good time to shout 'Eureka',' he later wrote, not without self-mockery.

He pulled a few grams of the new compound into a hypodermic needle, walked quietly into his boss Bolton's office, leaned over the man's desk, and squirted a few drops onto a pile of documents that lay beside the phone. "Here's that synthetic fiber of yours," he said, turned and disappeared again.

Moments later, he sank into a deep depression. In the previous years he had published 31 studies, invented hundreds of new compounds, laid the foundations for fifty new patents. Was he burnt out? He lost all interest in chemistry as such.

Director Bolton sent him on holiday to the Black Forest and put someone else on the 6-6 finish.
Julian Hill later told that from 1932 Carothers always had a glass vial of cyanide in his pocket, apparently for the day he lost his life. Hill: 'He could also name all the great chemists in history who had committed suicide.'

Nevertheless, in early 1936 Carothers married a girl in her early twenties whom he had met in the patent department. In April, he was admitted to the National Academy of Sciences as the first industrial chemist in history.

Carothers thought it was nonsense. In January 1937 he was dealt a blow by the unexpected death of his favorite sister. On April 9, he reached final settlements for the patent application for the 6-6 product. The day before his 41st birthday, on April 26, his wife informed him that she was pregnant.

On the morning of April 28, 1937, two days after his birthday, he left for work.

However, he did not arrive at the laboratory. At five o'clock the next morning, he arrived at a hotel in Philadelphia. A few hours later, guests reported loud moans in his room. When hotel detectives forced open the door, Carothers lay dead on the floor.

To combat the bitter taste – or to speed up the process, according to another source – he had diluted his potassium cyanide reserve with lemon juice.

Friends and colleagues learned of his death from the newspaper. His suicide embarrassed many. One of his colleagues said: 'This is what happens when you put a really creative person in an organization.

It's going to kill him.' Earlier, Carothers wrote to a friend: "The problem is that my eyes and my imagination are far beyond my powers." Carothers left no note. Seven months later his daughter Jane was born.

Price: $ 27 million

For DuPont engineers, work had yet to begin. They had to pull the plastic into fibers and roll them onto bobbins. How did the fiber get a protective layer so that it was possible to spin it; how were the spinning machines to be converted?

Meanwhile, the company worked feverishly on a $7 million factory to produce the first Number 66 products. The buildings were completely standing, when the technicians were still at their wits' end. The first stockings emerged as a shapeless mass.

Later they were shod over some kind of last and heated slightly until they held their shape. The investigation had swallowed up twenty-seven million dollars in eleven years.

At the site where in October 1938 everything was being prepared for the New York World's Fair of 1939, Charles Stine, the man who had dragged Carothers to DuPont at the time, confirmed the existence of the spectacular new weaving plastic to an audience of 4000: 'Manufactured from the simplest raw materials such as coal, water and air, nylon can be transformed into wires as strong as steel and as fine as a spider's web.'

A stampede in two stages

From February to March 1939, DuPont sold 4,000 pairs of nylon stockings to its own female employees. Men noted that "girls who worked at DuPont walked more proudly and held their heads higher than other ladies."

A second batch of 4,000 pairs went out in an hour in October at a store in local Wilmington. On May 15, 1940, the company launched the first five million pairs. They were sold in two hours. The triumph of the nylon stocking had begun.

The application of nylon in hundreds of other products, including a solid type of plastic, could begin.
The fun of the American women was short-lived. In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, sending the United States into World War II.

In February 1942, the entire DuPont production switched to wartime manufactures, and they did not produce a single nylon stocking for three years. The government asked all patriotic women to hand in nylon stockings to make parachutes.

Movie stars publicly stripped off their stockings to support 'our boys'. During World War II, 400,000 tons of 'the new yarn' ran in parachutes, rope and tents.

After the war, in August 1945, DuPont turned production around again and the whole nylon stocking circus could start all over again.

The newspaper headlines didn't lie: 'Peace breaks out, nylons for sale.' The New York Times printed: "30,000 women in a rush for nylons," the Syracuse Post Standard: "10,000 in line for nylons." When a reporter asked 60 girls in Tulsa what they missed most during the war, 20 answered, "Men," but the 40 others said, "Nylons."

In 1988, at a grand celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of nylon, Julian W. Hill (1904-1996), Carothers' friend and colleague at the time, said, “I think the human race will die from plastic suffocation.

All those cursed plastic bags I see lying around in my holiday home, horrible. I have always been a bird lover and have always been interested in nature. But all the nature magazines I see are full of horror stories.

When I look around, all I see are pieces of plastic. My god, even a snack at a snack bar I get shoved in a plastic foam box.'

Dirty Japanese?

For two and a half years, DuPont management searched for a name for the new product, arguably the most intensive naming in the history of science. In desperation, the management appointed a four-member committee to solve the problem.

With polyhexamethyleneadipamide, as the substance was chemically called, you had nowhere to go. More than four hundred names were on the table: from Amidarn to Wiralene.

One of the directors had suggested "Duparooh," an abbreviation of the phrase "DuPont pulls a rabbit out of hat."

Someone thought of 'Wacara', after the inventor's name. At the last session of the name committee, a few hours before the first press conference, a game with letters arose. The starting point was the word 'norun', literally 'no ladders'.

Well, that was a promise the company failed to keep.

Back to front, that resulted in 'nuron'. After a few more hours of meetings, someone changed the middle r to an l. 'Nulon', on the other hand, was too close to an existing brand and could be misspelled as 'newlon'.

If you put an 'i' instead of the 'u', so 'nilon', you could get the wrong spellings 'nil-lon', 'nee-lon' or 'nigh-lon'. That's how 'nylon' emerged. The whole committee could agree with 'nylon', the decision had been made.

The US suddenly found itself without Japanese silk, an important Japanese export product.

So it was that in Japan official credence was given to the fabrication that nylon was an acronym for "Now You, Lousy Old Nipponese," roughly translated, "Now it's up to you, dirty old Japanese." A story printed by the Japan Times that DuPont's vice president hastily had to officially deny in a letter to the Japanese Silk Manufacturers' Association.

Nor was nylon an abbreviation of (N)ew (Y)ork – (Lon)don.