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April 9, 2002

A public radio commentary

I have a favorite pair of shoes. With them I've stomped in puddles all over the world. I like them because they keep my feet dry. They're lined with the most amazing material: Gore-Tex.

It's also used in running suits, hiking boots, mountaineering gear, fishing equipment and ski outfits. Gore-Tex is usually advertised as waterproof, but really its secret is that it's breathable. There are many waterproof things we could wear; for example, a piece of plastic would seal out water, but it would also seal in everything else, making us feel clammy and uncomfortable. In contrast, Gore-Tex has billions of microscopic pores, which allow body heat to escape, but are small enough that water can't get in.

Gore-tex came about because Bill Gore, a chemical engineer, fall in love with Teflon. The stuff that's used to make nonstick pots and pans.

Here's a quote from Bill Gore, paying tribute, as only a chemist could, to Teflon: "From a chemical point of view," he said, "it is unique, there is really nothing like it. You have carbon combined with fluorine, which is the most electronegative element, and the bond is one of the strongest in chemistry.,, it is the ultimate all-American material." I wasn't aware these were the criteria for an all American, but his sentiment did get me Gore-Tex lined shoes.

Thrilled with the properties of Teflon, Bill Gore felt, to quote him, that "if we could ever unfold these molecules, get them to stretch out straight, we'd have a tremendous new kind of material." In fact, that's all that waterproof Gore-Tex is: Stretched teflon. But this is not as simple as it sounds, as Gore found out when he started developing Gore-Tex in his basement, with his son Robert. They took a rod of Teflon, heated it, then carefully stretched it. It snapped, a bit like the mozzarella cheese on pizza. Day after day they failed in their home laboratory. Then one night, angry after repeated failures, Robert Gore grabbed a rod of teflon and violently and quickly stretched it. It didn't snap. Then and there Gore-Tex was born.

The first field test was done by Bill Gore and his wife Genevieve. In the summer of 1970 they fixed an old tent with Gore-Tex patches, then took their annual camping trip to Wyoming. The first night it rained, but the Gore-Tex kept them dry. Based on the success of this trial, the Gores started making mountaineering clothes, a logical choice since they were accomplished mountaineers, having climbed to 16,000 feet in the Himalayas. By 1978 word of mouth has spread to other outdoor enthusiasts, and soon Gore-Tex became an essential tool for all outdoor sports.

It's now even moving into areas unseen by Bill Gore. The All-American Gore-tex is becoming all-Scottish. The breathability and waterproofness of Gore-Tex make it ideal as the bag of a bagpipe.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises