The world’s first synthetic fiber was the petroleum product “Nylon 6,” discovered in 1935 by a DuPont chemist who produced the polymer from chemicals found in oil.
DuPont Corporation foresaw the future of “strong as steel” artificial fibers. The chemical conglomerate had been founded in 1802 as a Wilmington, Delaware, manufacturer of gunpowder. The company would become a global giant after DuPont scientists created incredibly durable and versatile products, including nylon, rayon, and lucite.
The world’s first synthetic fiber — nylon — was discovered on February 28, 1935, by a former Harvard professor working at a DuPont research laboratory. Called Nylon 6 by scientists, the revolutionary carbon-based product came from chemicals found in petroleum.
Professor Wallace Carothers had experimented with artificial materials for more than six years. He previously discovered neoprene rubber (commonly used in wet suits) and made major contributions to understanding polymers — large molecules composed in long chains of repeating chemical structures.
Just 32 years old, Carothers created fibers when he combines the chemicals amine, hexamethylene diamine, and adipic acid. He formed a polymer chain using a process in which individual molecules join together with water as a byproduct.
However, the fibers were weak, explains a PBS series, A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. “Carothers’ breakthrough came when he realized the water produced by the reaction was dropping back into the mixture and getting in the way of more polymers forming,” notes the PBS website. “He adjusted his equipment so that the water was distilled and removed from the system. It worked!”
DuPont named the petroleum product nylon — although chemists called it Nylon 6 because the adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine each contain six carbon atoms per molecule.
Each man-made molecule consists of 100 or more repeating units of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, strung in a chain. A single filament of nylon may have a million or more molecules, each taking some of the strain when the filament is stretched.
There’s disagreement about how the product name originated at DuPont.
“As to the word nylon, it’s actually quite arbitrary. DuPont itself has stated that originally the name was intended to be No-Run (that’s run as in the sense of the compound chain of the substance unravelling), but at the time there was no real justification for the claim, so it needed to be changed,” noted Chris Nickson in a 2017 website post, Where Does the Name Nylon Originate?
Replacing Hog Bristles
The first commercial use of this revolutionary petroleum product was for toothbrushes.
On February 24, 1938, the Weco Products Company of Chicago, Illinois, began selling its new “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft” — the earliest toothbrush to use synthetic DuPont nylon bristles.
Americans will soon brush their teeth with nylon — instead of hog bristles, declared an article in the New York Times. “Until now, all good toothbrushes were made with animal bristles,” proclaimed a 1938 Weco Products advertisement in Life magazine. “Today, Dr. West’s new Miracle-Tuft is a single exception. It is made with EXTON, a unique bristle-like filament developed by the great DuPont laboratories, and produced exclusively for Dr. West’s.”
Pricing its toothbrush at 50 cents, the Weco Products Company guaranteed “no bristle shedding.” Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, New Jersey, will introduce a competing nylon-bristle toothbrush in 1939.
Although DuPont patented nylon in 1935, it was not officially announced to the public until October 27, 1938, in New York City. A DuPont vice president unveiled the synthetic fiber — not to a scientific society or industry association — but to 3,000 Women’s Club members gathered at the site of the upcoming 1939 New York World’s Fair.
“He spoke in a session entitled ‘We Enter the World of Tomorrow,’ which was keyed to the theme of the forthcoming fair, the World of Tomorrow,” explained DuPont historian David A. Hounshell in a 1988 book.
The petroleum product was an instant hit, especially as a replacement for silk in hosiery. DuPont built a full-scale nylon plant in Seaford, Delaware, and began commercial production in late 1939. The company purposefully did not register “nylon” as a trademark – choosing to allow the word to enter the American vocabulary as a synonym for “stockings.”
Women’s nylon stockings appeared for the first time at Gimbels Department Store on May 15, 1940. World War II would remove the polymer hosiery to make nylon parachutes and other vital supplies.
Nylon would become far and away the biggest money-maker in the history of DuPont. The powerful material from lab research led company executives to derive formulas for growth, according to Hounshell in his 1988 book, The Nylon Drama. “By putting more money into fundamental research, Du Pont would discover and develop ‘new nylons,’ that is, new proprietary products sold to industrial customers and having the growth potential of nylon,” he explained.
Carothers did not live to see the widespread application of his work — in consumer goods such as toothbrushes, fishing lines, luggage and lingerie, or in special uses such as surgical thread, parachutes, or pipes — nor the powerful effect it had in launching a whole era of synthetics. “Early in 1937 his favorite sister died suddenly. He never recovered from the loss…and in April of that year he committed suicide. DuPont later named its research station after him.”
The DuPont website notes the Carothers invention changed the way people dressed worldwide – and rendered the term ‘silk stocking’ obsolete. It had once been an epithet directed at the wealthy elite . Nylon’s success also encouraged DuPont to adopt long-term strategies for new products developed from basic research.
Recommended Reading: The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History (2019); Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon. (2005). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society; as an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Nylon, a Petroleum Polymer.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/petroleum-product-nylon-fiber. Last Updated: February 21, 2021. Original Published Date: February 23, 2014.