Did the inventors of nylon have any idea their creation would bring the world such products as pantyhose, lightweight luggage and inexpensive carpeting? Or that it would help lead to to the discovery of recombinant DNA and to biotechnology?
Wallace Carothers, the Harvard chemistry instructor whose research created nylon, never even lived to hear the name Du Pont gave to his invention. He committed suicide by drinking cyanide shortly after the patent on nylon was issued in 1937.
Eighty-four-year-old Julian Hill, who worked with Carothers at Du Pont and now lives in a retirement colony in Delaware, recalls that the Carothers had a history of depression and initially declined the job at Du Pont because of it.
“He had doubts that he might be too much of a handicap in an industrial settings,” Hill said. “He had his ups and downs and they got steadily worse.”
Hill doubts that Carothers or anyone on the research staff had much awareness of the ramifications of the nylon discovery.
“We were just straightening out the basic chemistry and the structure of polymers,” he said. “It was clear this was a different kind of thing, but nobody really knew what it would mean.”
No one shouted “Eureka!” at the discovery. “Our output was what we liked to hope would become first class papers in The Journal of the American Chemical Society,” Hill said. “Those were our satisfactions, besides having good jobs.”