100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Nylon (Synthetic Fabrics)

Year of Invention: 1937

What Is It? The first man-made, synthetic fabric produced in a chemistry lab.
Who Invented It? Wallace Carothers (in Wilmington, Delaware)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

By the early twentieth century, demand for natural fibers had begun to outstrip their supply. Science turned to the idea of creating artificial (synthetic) fibers to reduce the pressure on these plants and animal herds. The three most successful of these synthetic fabrics—nylon, rayon, and polyester—have accounted for almost 20 percent of total clothing sales over the past 30 years. If not for these synthetic fabrics, cotton and wool would likely be five to ten times as expensive as they now are.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber (1839) counts as the first man-made clothing material, because raw rubber had to be mixed with chemical additives (magnesium, sulfur, and lime) and then fired in a furnace.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, silk was a popular and fashionable material. Limited silk supplies meant that it was also expensive. Researchers in Europe and America sough a way to create “artificial silk.”

British researchers C. F. Cross and E. J. Bevan and French scientist Louis de Chardonnet independently developed the same idea for “artificial silk.” They washed a wood pulp (cellulose) fiber in caustic soda and treated it with a sulfur-carbon compound to create something called xanthate. Xanthate could be liquefied and then forced at high pressure through tiny spinneret holes to produce long, fine fibers. For 20 years these fibers were simply called artificial silk. In 1924, a British manufacturing company, Courtlaulds, renamed them rayon.


How Was Nylon Invented?

Life was never easy for Wallace Carothers. But the story of how he invented nylon is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Shy, withdrawn, and uncomfortable with people, Carothers enrolled in a Missouri college in 1915 to become a teacher. After graduation he

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