Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On DuPont and Wallace Carothers

On DuPont and Wallace Carothers: One year after General Electric (GE), DuPont established the nation's second corporate research and development (R&D) laboratory in 1902. The main purpose behind an R&D lab was two-fold. First, to create new products for the consumer market, and second, to create new uses for existing products. As one of America's premier chemical engineering firms, some of DuPont's most notable products include gunpowder, spray paint (to be used on automobile exteriors), and freon (for the budding refrigerant industry in the early 20th century). However, it was the discovery of nylon by DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers (pictured above) in 1935 which not only made the company into a household name, but also helped position it for dominance in the new synthetic polymer industry. Other important synthetic polymers to emerge from DuPont's Experimental Station laboratory near Wilmington, Delaware, included neoprene (diving suits) and kevlar (bulletproof vests). Yet despite his brilliance as a chemist, Carothers was a deeply depressed individual. Since about 1931, when he was working on the commercial development of neoprene, Carothers kept a capsule of cyanide attached to the end of his watch chain. And in 1937, he ingested that capsule mixed with lemon juice in a Philadelphia hotel room, choosing not to leave a suicide note.

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