Toothbrush bristles, plastic containers, carpets, luggage. What do they have in common? They are all made of synthetic materials that are completely man-made!
Known as polymers, these giant molecules were first conceived in a laboratory by Wallace Carothers, a chemist, in the early 1930s. Scientists were looking for alternatives to Japanese silk, which was hard to import.
Nylon, when first introduced took the world by storm, and largely due to clever marketing strategies by DuPont, the company that pioneered the material. 2014 marks 75 years since nylon first went into production.
A 'Miracle' Fiber
DuPont had experience with another material, rayon. Seeing the sheer and durable nature of nylon, the company decided to focus on women's hosiery. It secretly sent its first batch of nylons to a knitting mill - it is said that the chemist who took the samples, slept on the train holding on to them tightly! The company began manufacturing the material in 1939.
When nylon stockings were first introduced in May 1940, women lined up at stores across the country. The material was advertised as having the "strength of steel and the sheerness of cobwebs!" In fact, the word "nylon" became synonymous with "stocking". Within two years, DuPont had captured an astonishing 30% of the hosiery market, especially among working class women who could not afford the costly silk.
The material's light weight, incredible strength and resistance to damage made it ideally suitable for parachutes, tents, glider tow ropes, jackets, shoelaces. mosquito netting and more. Everything soldiers needed as the U.S was in the midst of World War II. DuPont diverted all its production for war supplies.
When nylon went back into production of stockings in 1945, there were riots and stampedes at stores as women tried to get their hands on limited supplies!
The Legacy Of Nylon
Nylon revolutionized many industries, and changed the way we live and travel. Lightweight luggage made flying easier, nylon ropes and tents appealed to outdoor enthusiasts, and its heat and scratch resistant properties made it popular as cookware. Nylon as a fabric has declined since the 1960's, with people moving back to natural fibers such as cotton and wool.
Nylon's success has led to development of other synthetic materials such as Teflon, polyester and Spandex. But, synthetic fibers have a major downside. They are made of petroleum by-products, and have a very slow decay rate. This results in accumulation of unwanted products in landfills around the world, and pollutes our rivers and oceans.