The Lesson of Nylons
Peruse any recent media report on the need for economic development, be it local, state, or national, and you will almost certainly find a call for the creation of more manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately, after expressing the desire for more factories and production lines, rarely, if ever, is a plan laid out for how to make this happen. Let me suggest that the 77 year old story of the invention of nylon provides useful guidance on how we can achieve this important goal.
Our story begins in China in approximately 3500 B.C. when the invention of silk added a fourth option to mankind’s current supply of cotton, wool and hemp as textile fibers. Silk is produced by harvesting the cocoon of the mulberry silkworm before it emerges as an adult moth. With its elasticity and shiny surface, silk was a significant upgrade over coarse cotton and wool garments. Demand for silk created one of the best known trade routes of early Indo-European history, the Silk Road, which extended from central China to the Mediterranean Sea.
Cotton, wool, hemp, and silk maintained a near-monopoly in textiles for several millennia until the mid-1800’s with the invention of rayon. Rayon is made by chemically manipulating cellulose fibers extracted from wood, making it something of a natural-synthetic hybrid. Rayon was initially touted as “artificial silk” in an attempt to gain market share from the natural product. Although it did garner quite a bit of attention at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, the quality of rayon fabrics were not sufficient to supplant silk as a luxury product and they too expensive to compete with cotton, hemp, and wool in commodity products.
The first real challenge to silk in the market place came from DuPont Chemical Company. In the early 20th century, DuPont produced gunpowder and explosives, which were lucrative markets during World War I. After the war DuPont was looking to expand into new markets and decided to try rayon, opening the DuPont Fibersilk Company in 1920.
DuPont devoted several years to narrowly-focused, applied research attempting to improve upon the qualities of rayon fabrics with little success. (1) Then, in 1924, DuPont made a bold decision which would result in it becoming one of the most successful manufacturing companies in the history of the world. Rather than limiting itself to chasing incremental improvements in current technology, DuPont earmarked significant funding for its Experimental Station outside of Wilmington, Delaware where it would focus on fundamental scientific research. A key area of focus was to be the chemistry involved in the formation polymers.
In 1928 by promising him a free hand to pursue science as he saw fit, DuPont lured Harvard chemistry professor Wallace Carothers (2) to run the new polymer lab. Dr. Carothers and his research team synthesized hundreds of new polymers, two of which launched entire new industries, neoprene rubber in 1931 and nylon in 1935. By 1938 nylon fibers had been launched commercially in toothbrush bristles, fishing lines, and medical sutures. But nylon’s true coming out was still another year away.
The introduction of nylon stockings at New York World’s Fair in 1939 created an international stir. Silk finally had competition and it was formidable. Stockings made of nylon were both more elastic and less expensive than the silk versions. DuPont’s nylon stockings were both a commercial success and cultural sensation with consumer demand far outpacing supply. The first full-scale nylon hosiery plant opened in Seaford, Delaware before the end of 1939 and imports of silk into the U.S. rapidly fell by over 90%.
The supply of stockings to the consumer market was disrupted during World War II when nylon fibers were commandeered for parachutes (which formerly made from silk), tents, rain gear and other supplies needed by our armed forces. After the war ended, nylon stockings returned to the market place with a splash. An announcement that nylons would go on sale in San Francisco in August of 1945 attracted 10,000 shoppers requiring the police department to assist with traffic and crowd control.
Today nylon forms the foundation of a multibillion dollar industry in ropes, carpets, tires, fabrics, musical strings and, of course, stockings and panty hose. All of this stemmed from the bold and far-sighted decision of DuPont to risk money on basic research. While this column focuses on the success and growth of DuPont, the corporate histories of AT&T Bell Labs and General Electric have similar lessons on the value of investing in basic research.
In my view, much of our manufacturing sector has fallen back to the mode that DuPont followed in 1920, plodding away in the dull pursuit of minor improvements to existing products. They have cut back or cut out basic R&D to make the balance sheet look better over the short term while relying on our universities to pursue basic research. For a variety of economic and political reasons, funding for university research is now being curtailed. If we want to both prosper and be in a position to confront the resource and environmental challenges of this century, we need to get people back into the lab and give them the free hand that DuPont gave to Dr. Carothers.
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- Improvements in scientific knowledge of polymers and fibers have since allowed high-quality rayon products to be made, explaining its continued use in the textile industry.
- Sadly Dr. Carothers would not live to see full extent of the success of nylon or its coming out party at the 1939 World’s Fair. He committed suicide in 1937 at age 41.