Carothers' story... Science

His nylon stays with us

Despite being a troubled soul, Wallace Hume Carothers was a brilliant chemist, who explored the world of polymers   | Photo Credit: FLICKR/Sten Dueland

What happened with Wallace Hume Carothers is not something that can be easily understood. There were parts of his life where he went with the wind, and then there were those periods when he went head first into the headwind. It didn’t help that he suffered from periodic manic depressive mood swings. Despite being a troubled soul, he was a brilliant chemist and inventor and remains one of the pioneers to explore the science of man-made polymers.

Born in Iowa, Carothers first studied accounting before taking to chemistry. He earned his Master’s degree and PhD from the University of Illinois and went on to become a professor at Harvard.

Turning point

He was already pursuing research on polymers when DuPont decided that basic research was the way forward. While R&D was common by then, a self-supported facility doing academic research in industry was still at a fledgling state.

Charles Stine, director of DuPont’s chemical department, was behind this fundamental research programme and after months of searching, he zeroed in on Carothers to head the programme that handled organic chemistry.

Carothers, however, had his own apprehensions. He initially turned down the offer as he believed that it did not suit his personality and that he might not be able to adapt to the demands of an industry. He eventually agreed to the switch from academia to industry and made himself a reputation as he began threading chains of molecules together.

Apart from inventing nylon, Carothers also laid the groundwork for another polymer that belongs to the family of synthetic rubbers.
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In the 1930s, they first came up with a fibre by reacting glycols and dibasic acids with strong acids under reduced pressure. The resultant early polyesters, however, had low melting points and high solubility in dry-cleaning solvents, making it problematic.


After a number of failed attempts, Carothers decided to drop this line of research. He needed plenty of encouragement to keep him continuing in the wider field of fibres. His renewed work met success in 1934 when they decided to use amines instead of glycols to produce polyamides rather than polyesters.

Called Yarn 66 during development (starting chemicals hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid both contained six carbon molecules), the resulting polymer had a higher melting point and was structurally stronger.

On this day in 1938, DuPont announced the name of this yarn as nylon before it took the world by storm. From toothbrush bristles to parachutes, combat uniforms and tyres, stockings, carpets, fabrics and ropes, nylon was practically everywhere with the advent of World War II (ties with Japan, America’s main source of silk, was breaking apart).

Carothers though, didn’t see his invention being put to practical use. Worsening bouts of depression not only affected his creativity but ultimately led to his suicide. A little over a year after his marriage, and months before his wife gave birth to their child, he killed himself using cyanide in 1937, aged 41.

>Image courtesy flickr/Sten Dueland

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 2:19:13 AM |

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