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November 9, 2004

A public radio commentary

Last night I packed for a week long trip, which reminds me to talk to you about my underwear.

It's made from the most marvelous and amazing of synthetic fabric that dries in just a few hours after a wash. I have all sorts of clothes made from this material, which I use when traveling. This means I need to bring only a few day's worth of clothes because I can wash them quickly in the hotel. In fact, I once traveled to Paris for two weeks with only a small carry-on suitcase.

Because I'm an engineer I searched, of course, for the roots of this synthetic clothing revolution. The granddaddy of all synthetic fibers is nylon. The story begins in 1927 when DuPont tried to hire eminent chemists - including the University of Illinois' Roger Adams. He, like all the others, turned DuPont down, but he suggested they hire his former student Wallace Carothers.

Carothers's specialty was assembling molecules into long strings, called polymers. This interested DuPont for very practical reasons: A polymer is the basis for plastics. You can think about a molecule as a brick, and the polymer like a wall built from that brick. But for Carothers the practical stuff didn't matter: He just liked hooking together molecules.

At DuPont, Carothers used his special techniques to set the World's Record for the longest chain of molecules. Yet, Carothers wanted more: He wanted the longest chain allowed by nature. So, he asked his lab assistant to mix up a batch of chemicals, and to let it cook for twelve days.

Inside the brewing concoction the molecules linked and linked and linked until they'd formed a hard, opaque white substance. Carothers's assistant heated a glass rod and touched the white mess. As he tried to remove it, a gossamer thread stuck to the rod. Like taffy he pulled it out of the beaker. As he pulled the thread stretched an enormous amount and then snapped back. What a wonderful material - especially for making clothes! Carothers named the material "fiber 66", but, of course, that wasn't exciting enough for the marketing team.

They considered 400 names, including Duparooh - short for DuPont Pulls A Rabbit Out Of a Hat. They rejected that possibility and tinkered with the name "No Run" - like a run in a stocking - until it became Nylon. The announcement of the discovery of nylon created waves in the press. A New York Times headline blared: Chemists produce synthetic silk. Time magazine called it "as lustrous as real silk." DuPont built on this PR to mount an ingenious marketing campaign to push the nylon to replace silk in stockings. It made silk seem virtuous and nylon naughty. Very quickly, nylon mania gripped the nation - a predecessor to my own quick drying underwear mania.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises