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
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
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
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
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.
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