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.

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