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From Laboratory to Lingerie: The Discovery of Nylon

Updated: Jul 21

#43 Science in History

28th February 1935

On this day in 1935, Wallace H. Carothers discovers nylon.

Nylon was discovered by Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist working for the DuPont Company in the United States. He had been working on the development of a synthetic fibre that could be used as a replacement for silk. In 1935, after many years of research, Carothers and his team developed a new polymer material that they called nylon. Carothers also discovered the synthetic rubber neoprene. A talented musician, he played the violin and piano and was known to perform in public concerts. Sadly, in 1937, 41-year-old Wallace Carothers took his own life following years of struggling with alcoholism and depression.

Wallace Hume Carothers

Nylon has revolutionized the world in many ways. It has been used in the manufacturing of a wide range of products, from clothing to car parts.

Nylon was the first synthetic material that could be used to produce fibres that were as strong and durable as natural fibres such as silk and wool. It was also less expensive than natural fibres, making it an attractive alternative for use in clothing and other products.

In 1938, DuPont introduced nylon to the public for the first time. Nylon stockings quickly became popular, and within two years, DuPont had sold more than 64 million pairs of stockings. Nylon was also used in other products, such as toothbrushes, fishing lines, and parachutes.

The discovery of nylon had significant social consequences. Nylon stockings, in particular, had a profound impact on women's fashion and lifestyle. Before the introduction of nylon stockings, silk stockings were the most popular choice for women. However, silk stockings were expensive and delicate, making them impractical for everyday wear. Nylon stockings were more affordable, durable, and easy to care for, making them a practical alternative to silk stockings.

The popularity of nylon stockings led to a new era of fashion and style. Women's clothing became more practical and functional, with dresses and skirts designed to accommodate the wearing of stockings. The fashion industry also began to focus more on practicality and affordability, rather than just aesthetics. This shift in fashion had a significant impact on women's lives, as it allowed them to participate more fully in activities outside of the home.

The impact of nylon was not limited to the fashion industry. Nylon was also used in the manufacturing of tires, ropes, and other industrial products. This increased the efficiency of many industries and helped to drive economic growth. The development of nylon also paved the way for other synthetic materials, such as polyester and acrylic, which have become widely used.

While nylon has had many positive social and economic consequences, it has also had negative environmental consequences. Nylon is made from petrochemicals, which are non-renewable resources. The manufacturing of nylon also produces greenhouse gases and other pollutants, which contribute to climate change and environmental degradation.

The disposal of nylon products can also be problematic. Nylon is not biodegradable, which has led to the accumulation of nylon waste in landfills and oceans, where it can harm wildlife and contribute to the global plastic pollution problem. While we must be mindful of its environmental impact, nylon remains an important part of our modern world and a symbol of human ingenuity and innovation.

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