Polypropylene

Polypropylene:

  • Has a high melting point making it useful for food containers suitable for cooking.
  • Does not react with water, detergents, or other corrosives.
  • Resists cracks, making it useful for building supplies.

Natta and Ziegler (a long-time plastics researcher) worked together to innovate polypropylene, the second most commonly used plastic as of 2018. Afterwards, Natta secretly patented the innovation to himself in 1954. Natta came from a family of lawyers; he was the only scientist.

Subsequently, a long patent fight ensued in which many others claimed to have invented the plastic.

Thereupon, after countless fighting, Natta agreed to pay Ziegler 30 percent of royalties. Eventually, the two won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1963.

No sooner was the commercial potential of polypropylene discovered than Phillips Petroleum engineers Paul Hogan and Robert Banks claim to have invented the plastic earlier, in 1951. Contrarily, it is unclear why staff engineers for a large, deep-pocketed corporation would neither disclose nor patent their invention.

Float Glass

Before float glass (also called flat glass), each piece of glass was individually poured and polished. This was a time consuming and expensive process that left the contours of glass uneven. Pilkington invented a method of floating the glass in a bath or iron tin, leaving both sides of glass perfectly smooth.

Float glass took seven years to perfect. They applied for the first patent Dec. 10, 1953.

In 1962, Pilkington’s company decided to license the invention albeit with strict non-disclosures. Licensees could never reveal production processes and must continue paying royalties even after patents expired.

Pilkington protected their IP so well that the US Dept. of Justice successfully sued in 1994 for violations of anti-trust provisions. They argued that Pilkington was, in effect, conspiring to artificially inflate the price of glass.

Semiconductors

Semiconductors are solid-state electronic replacements for vacuum tubes. They vastly enhanced productivity and lowered cost. Semiconductors also lowered the amount of electricity computers, or any equipment that ran on tubes, required.

In 1947, John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Water Brattain co-invented the semiconductor while working at Bell Labs for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956. Shockley went on to commercialize the business by forming the Shockley Semiconductor Company, in Mountain View, California, in 1956.

Shockley was a brilliant technologist but a less than stellar manager. His authoritarian management style alienated a number of key employees. Additionally, Shockley was a horrible person, an outspoken white supremacist and eugenicist.

Eventually, eight key employees quit together to first join Fairchild Semiconductor, a firm set up by Doriot student Arthur Rock. The Traitorous Eight included Gordon Moore, C. Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Robert Noyce, Victor Grinich, Julius Blank, Jean Hoerni and Jay Last.

Subsequently, they left to start their own firms. Those companies – chipmakers Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and the venture capital firm Kleiner-Perkins among them – were significantly more successful than Shockley’s business.

Bardeen is the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes, a later one for superconductors. Bardeen and Brattain went on to academic careers as did Shockley, after the failure of Shockley Semiconductor. Despite being, by every account, a horrible person, a group of early Silicon Valley engineers declared that “Shockley is the man who brought silicon to Silicon Valley.”

Teflon

1938

Roy Plunkett

Teflon makes surfaces nonstick and anti-corrosive.

On Apr. 6, 1938, Roy Plunkett accidentally discovered Teflon.

While researching alternative formulations for Freon he made a mistake and found a white powder in one of the canisters, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Rather than discarding it, he measured the properties of the new material.

The material was non-toxic, chemically inert, resistant to extreme cold and hot temperatures, and super slippery; nothing stuck to it. In 1945, DuPont named the material Teflon.

Plunkett spent the rest of his career at DuPont, working on various projects, most notably the leaded gas division.

Teflon was initially extremely expensive. Early uses included military applications that were less cost-conscious. Specifically, it was used in the refinement of nuclear materials in the Manhattan Project, which eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb.

One challenge that was common with Teflon: how to make a really slippery substance stick to something else. Simplifying, Teflon is like a string of carbon atoms surrounded by an armor of fluorine atoms. The fluorine is what makes the chemical so slippery. To make it stick to other products chemists broke the fluorine bonds that create the slipperiness on one side of Teflon coating, allowing it to be bonded to things

Over time, manufacturing methods improved and Teflon became inexpensive enough to be used in other industrial consumer products.

Today, nonstick Teflon-coated pots and pants are inexpensive and common. These were invented by Frenchman Marc Grégoire whose wife urged him to add the Teflon on his fish tackle to her cooking pans. He branded the new pan Tefal: Tef for Teflon and Al for aluminum and called his pan the “Happy Pan.” In 1958, the French Ministry of Agriculture certified the Teflon pan as safe and, by 1961, he was selling one million Teflon pans per month in the US.

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Another use for PTFE, found in the late 1960s, was as a fabric. Bob Gore found it could be stretched into long fibers and woven into a cloth. The result was a fabric that breathed like cotton but repelled water like rubber. He named the product Gore-Tex®. John Cropper first invented the same material but deferred patenting it, protecting it as a trade secret. Eventually, US courts ruled that although Cropper did in fact first create and market the product, his failure to patent it allowed Gore to own and enforce his own patents. This became one of the seminal cases for “patent trolls,” entities that file patents for which there is no real invention then, later, sue the people who invent the actual product.

Nylon

Nylon is a popular low-cost high-strength silk alternative. It vastly lowered the cost of producing silk-like fabric.

Carothers started undergraduate school, at Tarkio College in Missouri, as an English major but switched to chemistry due to an influential professor. He excelled, working as an instructor during his undergraduate years. He went on to earn a masters and PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois then became an instructor at Harvard.

DuPont funded a research lab dedicated to fundamental research, not focused on anything in particular. In 1928 joined DuPont as a senior chemist. His group did well. In 1930 they discovered Neoprene, a plastic still in use. In 1935 Carothers discovered polyamide 6-6, Nylon.

Carothers suffered from depression his whole life. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital at least twice and committed suicide in 1937, two years after creating Nylon.

Polyethylene Plastic

Polythene (PE) is the world’s most common plastic. Plastic bags, packaging cups, plates are all made from polyethylene plastic. Only carbonated beverage bottles use a different type of plastic because PE does not expand well.

Despite its ubiquity today, PE has an odd history. It was an accidental discovery by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett of the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). The scientists worked on creating a polymer from ethylene, a plastic, by combining high heat and pressure.

Early experiments exploded, causing a literal mess. However, in one experiment oxygen leaked into the chamber and rather than exploding there was a pure white waxy powder.

Experimentation continued and, eventually, scientists figured out how to create PE in bulk.

WWII broke out and the new plastic became a state secret, used to insulate RADAR equipment. By reducing the weight of RADAR, Allies were able to make portable units light enough to be used on planes.

After the war, ICI commercialized PE plastic. However, buyers initially expressed little interest. PE-based products which were flimsier than Bakelite or natural materials. Until the introduction of the wildly popular Hula Hoop the general public gave PE-based products a thumbs-down.

Today, PE is everywhere. It is so common the plastic has become a major polluter filling landfills and floating around oceans in country-sized trash heaps.

Stainless Steel

1913

Harry Brearley
W.H. Hatfield

Stainless steel is strong and has high heat resistance, just like ordinary steel. It resists corrosion, it’s formable and weldable and, unlike regular steel, does not rust.

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It lowered the cost of everyday items. For example, rather than silver, tableware could be made from stainless steel. Stainless steel also lowered the cost of maintenance for steel items by eliminating problems due to rust.

Harry Brearley is the inventor of stainless steel. He was born into a family of modest means. He worked hard, schooled himself, and learned metal science.

Brearley, working as an employee, discovered the core principles that led to “rustless steel,” later termed stainless steel. He left Brown Firth, his employer, over a patent dispute.

After leaving Brown, Brearley set out to create his own firm selling his new “rustless steel.” Manufacturers didn’t know what to make of it and one of them did not want the word rust tied to any of their products. He suggested naming the product “stainless steel” instead. Despite the enormous benefits of stainless steel, the knives manufactured from Brearley’s steel never did gain widespread popularity.

William Hatfield replaced Brearley and later invented the modern “18/8” stainless in use today. The name refers to the makeup of the metal: 18% chromium and 8% nickel.

Throughout time an increasing number of uses have been found for stainless steel. Early on, it was used for tableware and surgical instruments. Today it’s used for everything from tiny medical instruments to enormous sculptures.

Quoting the PBS special “The Streamliners”:

“The surface of stainless steel resists oxidation at high temperatures, making the sterilization of medical instruments possible. Its light weight and durability allowed the development of streamlining in transportation. The streamlined design of new trains, planes, and automobiles allowed for less wind resistance, and trains such as the Zephyr helped spark a new design movement. Everything from toasters to vacuum cleaners emulated the new vehicles. Stainless steel paved the way for modern technology and continues to influence our lives every day.”

Bakelite

Bakelite enabled inexpensive mass production at very high tolerances where interchangeable parts matter (ex: telephones, radios, plugs, pens, wristbands, insulators, etc…). Also, it looked fun compared to organic materials in use before Bakelite.

Baekeland’s Bakelite opened the “age of plastics.” It was moldable into any shape and, once molded, kept its shape. It did not react to heat and insulated electricity. Moldable to very tight tolerances, Bakelite was perfect for ever-smaller and more precise interchangeable parts.

Understanding that his patents would eventually expire, Baekeland worked hard branding the trademark Bakelite. After the patents expired, advertising pushed consumers to insist on genuine Bakelite despite that knockoffs were chemically identical.

Thanks to Velox photo paper, Baekeland was already rich when he invented Bakelite. However, his plastic made him fabulously wealthy. In 1939, at age 75, Baekeland sold Bakelite to Union Carbide for $16.5 million.

Later in life, he suffered mental issues, refusing to eat food that did not come from cans and fought with his son. His tombstone is granite but Bakelite seems like it would’ve been a more appropriate choice.

Electric Arc Furnace

Electric arc furnaces are giant pots that melt steel. They enable the recycling of scrap steel. Recycled steel both costs far less than creating steel from raw materials and has a lower environmental impact.

The process involves three-phase electrodes which create an arc that reaches about 3000°C (5400°F).

Frenchman Paul Héroult (co-inventor of aluminum smelting) perfected using electricity to melt iron. Eventually, he licensed his arc furnaces to US Steel and Halcomb Steel Company. Arguably, Siemens 1857 regenerative furnace and Moissan’s 1892 furnaces are predecessor technologies.

In a familiar pattern, Heroult invented the arc furnace in France but commercialized it in the US. Most furnaces were installed at US Steel.


Undoubtedly, electric arc furnaces always had some utility. Eventually, they became vastly more profitable when combined with the Nucor Mini-Mill innovation.

Synthetic Ammonia

Fritz Haber arguably saved and killed more people than any other single person in history.

Synthetic ammonia vastly lowered the cost of making fertilizer, explosives, and other chemicals.

The process to create synthetic ammonia was a concurrent invention. That is, two scientists came up with it at the same time independently of one another.

Because it allows for inexpensive fertilizer, the Haber-Bosch is responsible for approximately half the food grown in the world today. Fritz Haber, who both invented and also commercialized the process, saved billions of lives.

However, there is a darker history. Haber was a German Jew, a key German chemist developing chemical weapons for Germany in WWI. He oversaw their first use at the Second Battle of Ypres, where approximately 67,000 allied troops were killed in one gassing. His first wife committed suicide after learning how many people he helped kill.

Later, the institute he founded invented Zyklon A. Nazis used a successor chemical, Zyklon B, to murder millions in death camps including many members of Haber’s family. This caused his second wife to leave him, with the marriage ending in divorce.

Both, like Haber, converted from Judaism to Christianity though the Nazis did not care and banned Haber from his lab. He escaped Nazi Germany but died soon after the Nazi’s ascent to power in Basel, Switzerland.

Haber won the 1919 Nobel Prize in Chemistry but died a miserable man.