Our next stop is Wilmington, Delaware, home of the giant chemical company, DuPont. The year is 1930, and DuPont employs a scientist named Wallace Carothers. Carothers liked the theory that rubber and other natural materials were made from macromolecules, but being a good scientist he could not accept it without proof.
Carothers is a hard person to know and understand. According to people who know and work with him, he is easy to like, but difficult to reach. This is often the case with true geniuses. All his life he will fight depression, but his science is going to change all of our lives.
Carothers has a scheme to test Staudinger's theory. He is using a series of chemical reactions, which can produce no other products but macromolecules. His scheme works. He has created macromolecules in the laboratory, proving they can exist. What's more, his macromolecules behave a lot like natural materials. By 1935 he will have invented a macromolecule that behaves like silk. This substance will become known as nylon.
Along with data gathered by the Austrian scientist Herman Mark, Carothers' macromolecules help prove that natural polymers like starch, cellulose, and proteins were macromolecules. Since the main argument for the colloid theory has been a disbelief that macromolecules could exist, that theory is soon going to end up in the junkyard of ideas along with phlogiston and the giant turtle that was once thought to hold up the earth.
Now that people know the structure of rubber, can we figure out how to make synthetic rubber? People have been working on this one even before Staudinger had even thought about macromolecules...
The quest for synthetic rubber!
When Carothers is busy proving Staudinger's macromolecular theory, this is going on in the rest of the world:
1928: Hungarian composer Béla Bartók writes his String Quartet #4, the best piece of music ever (my opinion).
1929: In the U.S. a stock market crash heralds the beginning of the Great Depression.
1930: The planet Pluto is discovered by astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh.
Making Nylon 6 and 6,10 - Carothers made nylon 6,10, but never succeeded in making nylon 6. Now your class can make both in this Macrolab experiment, part of the Polymer Science Learning Center.
2. Hermes, Matthew. Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society; Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1996.