A Brief History of Nylon

istock / istock

by Jeremy Hill

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the invention of nylon. As ubiquitous a material it may be nowadays, you may be unaware of how revolutionary nylon was when it first hit the market, or the tragic story behind its creator.

Science and Discovery

In the mid 1930s, several DuPont Chemicals scientists led by Wallace Carothers were secretly slipping their names into the history books through a prototype polymer known then as "fiber 6-6."

His team originally set out to research commercial applications for polymers, which are large “building block” molecules that are now used in everything from tennis shoes to CDs.

Carothers and company made the polymer by combining hexamethylenediamine, a crystalline substance that easily bonds with acids, and adipic acid. They then pulled strands from the concoction and spun them into plastic thread using a process called cold drawing.

Three years later, DuPont’s production facilities were capable of spinning up to 12 billion pounds of the stuff annually. The company initially tested nylon in toothbrushes, but eventually focused on tapping the women’s hosiery market.

Nylon Hits the Market

Though nylon was first synthesized in a DuPont Chemicals laboratory on Feb. 28, 1935, it didn’t become available to the public until 1940. When it did, it was in the form of stockings, and women across the U.S. flocked to department stores to get their hands on a pair.

Women’s stockings were all the rage in the late 1930’s, but in post-Depression America, the high price of the silk they were often made from was not. So when the relatively cheap nylon stockings hit the shelves, demand shot through the roof. “Nylons,” as we now know them, brought in $9 million for DuPont in 1940—$150 million in today’s dollars.

Despite its wildly successful first year, DuPont shifted nearly all of its nylon production from the consumer market to the military in 1941 as the United States entered WWII. Allied forces used the material for everything from parachutes to mosquito nets.

But by then, fashion trends had already spurred such high demand for the stockings that when consumers couldn’t get their hands on them, a black market emerged. Some women even resorted to painting their legs in an effort to capture the look.

When the war ended and production returned to pre-war levels, consumers rushed to department stores. They waited in lines that dwarfed Black Friday queues and sometimes even resulted in violent kerfuffles. The phenomenon came to be known as the nylon riots.

One of the most notable examples occurred in Pittsburgh in 1945, where 40,000 women lined up to try to snag a pair.

The Man Behind the String

The father of nylon was a Harvard-educated, world-renowned organic chemist born in Burlington, IA in 1896.

Wallace Carothers had nearly 50 patents to his name by 1937, but his depression prevented him from witnessing the success of his inventions firsthand. Carothers often doubted his own competence as a chemist, and was forlorn when his early superpolymer prototypes failed.

Carother’s illness continued even after he and his team successfully synthesized nylon. Two years after the discovery, he took his own life by drinking a cocktail of lemon juice and potassium cyanide in a Philadelphia hotel.

A biography of Carothers published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1939 lauded the scientist, saying, “His contributions to organic chemistry were recognized as outstanding and, in spite of the relatively short span of time for his productive accomplishments, he became a leader in his field with an enviable international reputation.”

Nylon Today

Nylon stockings no longer inspire riots. But nylon as a material is arguably more pervasive than ever.

Toothbrushes. Umbrellas. Toilet brushes. Fishing line. Windbreakers. Camping tents. Winter gloves. Kites. Dog leashes. Dog collars. Guitar strings. Guitar picks. Children’s toys. Racket strings. Medical implants. These are a mere sampling the nearly innumerable things made from nylon—and consumers have Wallace Carothers and his team at DuPont to thank for it.