Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 666:
WALLACE CAROTHERS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 666.

Today, we watch a meteor flare and fall. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I am wounded by the story of Wallace Carothers. I do not understand the story of Wallace Carothers. I don't like the story, but I'm compelled to tell it. Maybe it's the story of a mind too large to fit the world it lived in.

Carothers was born an only child in Iowa, in 1896. He was three years younger than my father. He did his bachelor's degree at Tarkio College in Missouri, and his masters at the University of Illinois. He taught for a year at the University of South Dakota. Then he did a chemistry Ph.D. at Illinois.

1928 found Carothers teaching at Harvard. He was only 34. He'd already done brilliant work on the electronic nature of molecular bonds. Then he made a career lurch. He left academia to become a research director at Du Pont. He took charge of an organic chemistry group there.

R & D labs were well known by then. But a well-supported facility doing academic research in industry -- that was a radical new idea in 1928. It was an opportunity for Carothers.

He began stringing chains of molecules together. Those molecular chains made a tough new material. Du Pont began producing it commercially in 1939. They called it -- nylon.

Next he worked on acetylene polymers. As early as 1931, Du Pont was producing the result. It was commercial neoprene. After that, Carothers's work led to synthetic rubber.

The supply of Asian silk and rubber dried up in WW-II. Carothers saved our lives with synthetic tires. Some women thought nylon stockings had saved their lives as well.

A picture of Carothers comes down to us. We wish we'd known him. "Modest to the point of shyness," says one biographer. He tells of Carothers's "personal warmth," his "generosity of spirit," and his "sense of humor." But he also says that Carothers suffered mounting manic-depressive mood swings.

During nine years at Du Pont, Carothers finished his 62nd technical paper and filed his 69th patent. He changed America. He touched your life. In February 1936 he married. Then in April, the following year, he committed suicide. He was 41. His widow gave birth to a daughter, Jane, seventh months later.

I am gravely unhappy with this tale. Carothers was a shooting star. I want to explain this unreasonable death away, so it'll be gone. He was a gift we were all privileged to receive. I want him to have been content with his brilliance, as so many truly smart people are. I want to give -- you -- a happier ending.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hill, J.W., Carothers, Wallace Hume. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.). Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.

Mark., H., and Whitby, G.S., Collected Papers of Wallace Hume Carothers on High Polymeric Substances. New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc., 1940.

See also The National Inventors Hall of Fame, a brochure published by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation, Inc., 1990. The address is Room 1D01, Crystal Plaza 3, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, Virginia 22202.

 


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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