Organic chemist and overall science nerd Wallace Hume Carothers (1896-1937) probably never projected the eventual fervor for alluring bikinis or sexy pantyhose when he invented the now indispensable material of nylon in the labs of the DuPont chemical company in 1935.
Due to mounting tensions with Japan in the early 1930s that would eventually culminate in World War II, the United States found it more and more difficult to procure silk, coveted for being one of the strongest natural fibers and used in domestic, commercial and industrial purposes. In 1928, DuPont hired a young Harvard-trained scientist by the name of Carothers to head up research and development in organic substances and polymers and hopefully ameliorate the need by creating a synthetic substitute.
Carothers was the first hire instated at the new “Purity Hall” at DuPont headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, a brand-new laboratory touting research for the sake of research and innovation, radically departing from the widely accepted ethos of research with directed aims and problem-solving.
Within a few short years, Carothers’ work on polymers yielded neoprene, the world’s first synthetic rubber, still used today in wetsuits, shoe soles, electrical insulation and more. The invention of neoprene eventually led to yet another breakthrough in 1934 as Carothers pulled from a test tube the strands of a new material that had a heat tolerance of up to 195 degrees Celsius, an elasticity of 400 percent and comprised the best qualities of silk, cotton, and wool. The extremely elastic material is now ubiquitous: utilized in everything from transportation and medical supplies to the aforementioned skimpy- and athletic-wear.
The general public was first introduced to the new synthetic through Nylon toothbrush bristles, which were far more durable and sanitary than the gristly pig, horse or badger hair fibers used for dental hygiene at the time. A flashier debut came at the 1939 World’s Fair—the invention, in the form of easily-marketable nylon stockings that were more durable, affordable and comfortable than the available silk and wool versions, was unveiled publicly alongside the introduction of other modern comforts including air conditioning and the television set. Women in attendance clamored over this latest product that promised convenience and cost-saving. When four million brown nylon stockings officially hit the department stores on May 16, 1940, they were sold out within a staggering two days to the female consumers of America.
With its elastic and waterproof qualities, it was only natural for nylon to eventually dominate swimwear. Today, it is certain fact almost all swimsuits are fashioned from the material, though the history of who can claim credit for the first nylon bathing suit is a little murkier. Some accounts attribute the innovation to retired Olympian Adolph Kiefer, who in 1948 developed the first nylon swimsuits for the United States Olympic Swim Team, improving the athletes’ experiences over the available wool and cotton alternatives at the 1952 games. Speedo, the most popular athletic swimwear brand, would also like to tout the title for first nylon bathing suit, though citing a later date in the 1970s.
The improved aerodynamics for athletics also translated to a flaunting of curves for the layperson lounging on the beach. In this video recording the swimsuit portion of the 1956 First Nylon Trade Fair at The Albert Hall in London, the announcer flirtatiously banters: “These bloomers will never lose their shape… and what a shape… designed to flatter the figure, not that this figure needs any flattering.” The innovation easily made its way into the consumer market, since leisure swimwear (and on a larger spectrum, social and sexual decorum) was already undergoing drastic stylistic revolutions beginning with the much buzzed-about birth of the bikini on the French Riviera.
In use now for over seventy years, “the miracle fiber” has drawbacks, especially in its environmental impact. Because it is a synthetic, it is not biodegradable and creates nitrous oxides 300 times more noxious than carbon dioxide. The production of nylon requires crude oil and considerable energy, though many nylon producing companies, including DuPont, have programs to recycle and reuse nylon tires and carpets.
By all accounts, Wallace Hume Carothers lived a rather sad existence, dealing with bouts of severe depression. It is reported that he felt his life’s work was meaningless, but the company he worked for certainly did not reciprocate the sentiment, naming a research laboratory hall after Carothers’ in homage to his legacy. DuPont will forever be indebted to the discoveries of neoprene and nylon which broke ground for other related innovations. Over the course of his 9-year career at the company, he applied for over 50 patents. Eventually, Carothers took his own life one year into a new marriage and two days after his 41st birthday. It is a rather dark ending to such a success story, but for his contribution of nylon, mankind will pay tribute and celebrate him (unknowingly, but widely, through its common usage) on the bright and sunny beaches this summer.
Handley, Susannah. Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999.
Hermes, Matthew. Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon. Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1996.
Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Splash! A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
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