The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced on this date in 1935, by Wallace Hume Carothers at DuPont’s research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. In response to Carothers’ work, Paul Schlack at IG Farben developed nylon 6, a different molecule based on caprolactam, on January 29, 1938. Nylon was first used commercially in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed more famously in women’s stockings or “nylons” which were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and first sold commercially in 1940. During World War II, almost all nylon production was diverted to the military for use in parachutes and parachute cord.
DuPont, founded by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, first produced gunpowder and later cellulose-based paints. Following WWI, DuPont produced synthetic ammonia and other chemicals. DuPont began experimenting with the development of cellulose based fibres, eventually producing the synthetic fibre rayon. DuPont’s experience with rayon was an important precursor to its development and marketing of nylon. DuPont’s invention of nylon spanned a nine-year period, ranging from the start of the project in 1930 to its exhibition at the World Fair in New York in 1939. The project grew from a new structure at DuPont, suggested by Charles Stine in 1927, in which the chemical department would be composed of several small research teams that would focus on pioneering research in chemistry that would lead to practical applications. Carothers was hired from Harvard University to direct the polymer research group. Initially he was allowed to focus on pure research, building on and testing the theories of German chemist Hermann Staudinger. He was successful in his pure research because it greatly improved the general knowledge of polymers.
In the spring of 1930, Carothers and his team had already synthesized two new polymers. One was neoprene, a synthetic rubber greatly used during the war. The other was a white elastic, strong paste that would later become nylon. After these discoveries Carothers’ team was made to shift its research from a pure research approach investigating general polymerization to a more practically-focused goal of finding one chemical combination that would lend itself to industrial applications. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1935 that a polymer called “polymer 6-6” was finally produced. The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced by Carothers on February 28, 1935, at DuPont’s research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. It had all the desired properties of elasticity and strength. However, it also required a complex manufacturing process that would become the basis of industrial production in the future. DuPont obtained a patent for the polymer in September 1938, and quickly achieved a monopoly on the fiber.
The production of nylon required interdepartmental collaboration between three departments at DuPont: the Department of Chemical Research, the Ammonia Department, and the Department of Rayon. Some of the key ingredients of nylon had to be produced using high pressure chemistry, the main area of expertise of the Ammonia Department. Nylon was considered a godsend to the Ammonia Department which had been in financial difficulties. The reactants of nylon soon constituted half of the Ammonia department’s sales and helped them come out of the period of the Great Depression by creating jobs and revenue at DuPont.
DuPont’s nylon project demonstrated the importance of chemical engineering in industry, helped create jobs, and advanced chemical engineering techniques. DuPont developed a chemical plant that provided 1800 jobs and used the latest technologies of the time, which are still used as a model for chemical plants today. The success of the nylon project thus had to do with its ability to achieve the rapid mobilization of a large number of DuPont’s chemists and engineers. The first nylon plant was located at Seaford in Delaware, beginning commercial production on December 15, 1939.
DuPont went through an extensive process to generate names for its new product. In 1940, John W. Eckelberry of DuPont stated that the letters “nyl” were arbitrary and the “on” was copied from the suffixes of other fibers such as cotton and Rayon. A later publication by DuPont explained that the name was originally intended to be “No-Run” (“run” as in stockings), but was modified to avoid making such an unjustified claim. Since the products were not really run-proof, the vowels were swapped to produce “nuron”, which was changed to “nilon” “to make it sound less like a nerve tonic”. For clarity in pronunciation, the “i” was changed to “y.”
An important part of nylon’s popularity stems from DuPont’s marketing strategy. The fiber was promoted to increase demand before the product was available to the general market. Nylon’s commercial announcement occurred on October 27, 1938, at the final session of the Herald Tribune‘s yearly “Forum on Current Problems”, on the site of the approaching New York City world’s fair. The “first man-made organic textile fiber” which was derived from “coal, water and air” and promised to be “as strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web” was received enthusiastically by the audience, many of them middle-class women, and made the headlines of most newspapers. Nylon was introduced as part of “The world of tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was featured at DuPont’s “Wonder World of Chemistry” at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939. Actual nylon stockings were not shipped to selected stores in the national market until May 15, 1940. However, limited numbers were released for sale in Delaware before that. The first public sale of nylon stockings occurred on October 24, 1939, in Wilmington, Delaware. 4,000 pairs of stockings were available, all of which were sold within three hours.
Another added bonus to the campaign was that the release of Nylon meant reducing silk imports from Japan, an argument that won over many wary customers. Nylon was even mentioned by President Roosevelt’s cabinet, which addressed its “vast and interesting economic possibilities” five days after the material was formally announced. However, the early excitement over nylon also caused problems. It fueled unreasonable expectations that nylon would be better than silk, a miracle fabric as strong as steel that would last forever and never run. Realizing the danger of claims such as “New Hosiery Held Strong as Steel” and “No More Runs”, Du Pont scaled back the terms of the original announcement, especially those stating that nylon would possess the strength of steel.
Also, DuPont executives marketing nylon as a revolutionary synthetic material did not at first realize that some consumers experienced a sense of unease and distrust, even fear, towards non-organic fabrics. A particularly damaging news story, drawing on DuPont’s 1938 patent for the new polymer, suggested that one method of producing nylon might be to use cadaverine, a chemical extracted from corpses. Although scientists asserted that cadaverine was also extracted by heating coal, the public often refused to listen, as in the case of a woman who confronted one of the lead scientists at DuPont and refused to accept that the rumor was not true.
DuPont changed its campaign strategy, emphasizing that nylon was made from “coal, air and water”, and started focusing on the personal and aesthetic aspects of nylon, rather than its intrinsic qualities. Nylon was thus domesticated, and attention shifted to the material and consumer aspect of the fiber with slogans like “If it’s nylon, it’s prettier, and oh! How fast it dries!” After nylon’s nationwide release in 1940, production was increased. 1300 tons of the fabric were produced during 1940. During their first year on the market, 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold. While nylon was marketed as the durable and indestructible material of the people, it was sold at almost twice the price of silk stockings ($4.27 per pound of nylon versus $2.79 per pound of silk). Sales of nylon stockings were strong in part due to changes in women’s fashion. By 1939 hemlines had inched back up to the knee, where they were in 1929. The shorter skirts were accompanied by a demand for stockings that offered coverage without the use of garters to hold them up. However, as of February 11, 1942, nylon production was redirected from being a consumer material to one used by the military DuPont’s production of nylon stockings and other lingerie stopped, and most manufactured nylon was used to make parachutes and tents for World War II.
Once the war ended, the return of nylon was awaited with great anticipation. Although DuPont projected yearly production of 360 million pairs of stockings, there were delays in converting back to consumer rather than wartime production. In 1946, the demand for nylon stockings could not be satisfied, which led to the Nylon Riots. In one case, an estimated 40,000 people lined up in Pittsburgh to buy 13,000 pairs of nylons. In the meantime, women cut up nylon tents and parachutes left from the war in order to make blouses and wedding dresses. Between the end of the war and 1952, production of stockings and lingerie used 80% of the world’s nylon.
Nylon is commonly used in kitchen utensils and it has a number of advantages over other materials. Of major importance is that nylon utensils do not scratch non-stick and other sensitive cooking surfaces. Conversely, cheaply made nylon utensils may melt if exposed to high temperatures. They should be able to withstand 450˚F/230˚C, and should be so rated. If utensils are not marked with a heat rating, chances are they cannot withstand high heat. Also, nylon utensils crack over time, creating places where harmful bacteria can hide, and cannot easily be cleaned out. Nylon is also non-biodegradable, so your worn out utensils will sit in landfills a very long time.