Fiberglass has multiple uses. It acts as an insulator, building material, and even boat hulls.

First, in 1870, John Player developed a process to mass-produce glass strands with seam jets used for insulation. By and large, this is arguably the first fiberglass.

Eventually, in 1880, Herman Hammesfahr patented weaving glass fibers to silk, making it durable and flame retardant.

Modern fiberglass is an accidental discovery. Corning Glass sold cookware. Product developer Dale Kleist was working to fuse glass pieces together. He thought the molten glass was not fusing correctly. To cool it down, he shot it with compressed creating a flood of thin glass fibers, modern fiberglass.

In 1935, Corning Glass started a co-development project with Owens-Illinois, another company working on fiberglass. The next year they merged, forming Corning-Owens, the company’s still current name.

By the late 1930s and early 1940s, they were spinning the fibers into cloth to reinforce laminates.

In 1936, DuPont’s Carlton Ellis patented polyester resin. Germany perfected combining it with fiberglass to make light and strong laminates. Eventually, during WWII, Allied spies stole the technology and brought it to the US. This material is the forerunner of modern laminates. Cars, boats, and even aircraft use light, strong laminates.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET Plastic bottles)

PET plastic reduced the cost and weight of beverage containers. Originally, only glass and metal containers were suitable for storing carbonated drinks. Other plastics would bulge and break. However, PET plastic enabled plastic bottles suitable for carbonated drinks. Soon, it became used for all beverages.

In the 1960s, plastics engineer Wyeth questioned whether carbonated drinks could be stored in plastic bottles. Experimentation quickly the carbonation causes the bottles to expand and, sometimes, explode.

Wyeth worked for about a decade to find a plastic that could hold carbonated drinks, eventually innovating polyethylene-terephthalate (PET) plastic. He filed for patent protection in 1973. Eventually, PET bottles came to dominate the market.

Subsequently, Wyeth’s bottles have become an environmental mess. Eventually, in 2019, some bottlers are working to transition from PET bottles to more environmentally sustainable alternatives.



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 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.

Chlorofluorocarbons “Freon”

Freon is the brand name of a Chlorofluorocarbon gas. It replaced other refrigerant chemicals that were more toxic or volatile, including ammonia. Throughout the 20th century, Freon became the dominant refrigerant gas.

The team that invented Freon was led by Thomas Midgley, Jr., who earlier had invented leaded gasoline. It was a joint venture between GM and DuPont, via a company called Kinetic Chemicals.

Eventually, scientists discovered Freon is incredibly environmentally destructive. The US and EU strongly discouraged the use of Freon in the late 1900s. They banned it in 2020. Midgley is arguably responsible for more environmental damage than any other single inventor.

While Freon was toxic to the environment it was largely non-toxic to human beings. There is little doubt that Midgley knew about the problems with lead but it remains less clear if he understood the problems with freon. To demonstrate the non-toxicity of Freon, Midgley once allegedly breathed it in then blew it onto a candle.

Like leaded gasoline, Midgley invented freon at Kettering Laboratories then licensed the patent to Frigidaire, then a division of General Motors.