|January 25, 1997 |
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
|Lois Anne DeLong |
FROM BUBBLE GUM TO SYNTHETIC RUBBER: SALUTING AN ENGINEER WHO MADE THE BEST OF "STICKY SITUATIONS"
NEW YORK, JANUARY 25 While raincoats, automobile tires, and bubble gum would seem to have little in common, they are actually linked in two ways: they can trace their roots to the rubber industry, and they owe a debt to chemical engineer and inventor, Waldo L. Semon. During a 37-year career with The B.F. Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio, Semon patented more than 116 inventions, including polyvinyl chloride, the key ingredient in everything from phonograph records, to bumper stickers, to the aforementioned raincoats; adhesives used to attach fabric to automobile seats, and carpets to floors; and even bubble gum.
Born in Demopolis, Alabama, in 1898, and raised in Medford, Oregon, Semon graduated cum laude from the University of Washington in 1920, and completed his doctorate at the Seattle school in 1924. He stayed on at Washington as an instructor for two years, supplementing his income with consulting, until financial circumstances led him to take a post with BFGoodrich. There, one of his first assignments was to figure out different ways to bond rubber to metal. Semon came up with over 100 and, in the process, discovered one of the substances that would put him in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995- polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or as it's more commonly known, vinyl.
Scientists and engineers had been experimenting with vinyl polymers for more than 50 years, but had yet to find any commercial applications for these substances. "People then thought of PVC as worthless," Semon observed. "They'd throw it in the trash." But, by heating polyvinyl chloride in a solvent at a high boiling point, Semon discovered a substance that was flexible and elastic, waterproof and fire-resistant, and did not conduct electricity. Its first commercial application surfaced in 1931, as a coating for umbrellas, raincoats, and shower curtains. Now, PVC is the second most-used plastic in the world, with some 44 billion pounds produced each year at an estimated worth of about $20 billion.
The Stuff That Made Bazooka Famous
Semon's other famous invention grew out of a company directive to find as many uses for rubber as possible. "Bubble gum came about as I was asked to create whatever I could from rubber," he noted recently, "and bubble gum was one of many." Semon came up with the substance-a form of rubber-thinking it could replace conventional chewing gum. "It looked just like ordinary gum," he told The New York Times in 1995, "except that it would blow these great big bubbles. Unfortunately, BFGoodrich thought that was a defect and that nobody would buy it."
BFGoodrich passed on developing and commercializing the product, which Semon patented in October of 1931. After the time on the patent ran out, Bazooka trademarked the product. Semon ended up having no financial stake in the commercialization of his invention.
Keeping America Running
When America entered World War II, its efforts were aided by yet another Semon discovery-synthetic rubber for car and truck tires. Much of Semon's efforts in the late 1930s and early 1940s were directed at mixing samples of acrylnitrile and styrene in proportions not already covered by patents. By the time of Pearl Harbor, more than 15,000 samples had been tested, including on-road demonstrations whereby Semon drove cross-country from Akron to the University of Washington. All told, during his tenure as research director at BFGoodrich, Semon provided the technical leadership that led to three major new families of polymeric materials: synthetic "natural" rubber, thermoplastic polyurethane, and oil-resistant, synthetic rubber materials.
Semon retired from BFG in 1963, and served for a while as a research professor at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. The Hudson, Ohio, resident has been honored by the University of Washington as the Alumnus Summa Lauda Signatus in 1946 and with their Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1993, and with the 1941 New York Patent Attorneys' Modern Pioneer Award, and the Charles Goodyear Gold Medal. He has been a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) since 1937.
When asked recently why he pursued so many projects that no one else seemed interested in developing, he replied rather modestly, "Basically, I was just doing my job." He also encouraged young engineers not to pass up the "long- shot projects." "My advice is simple-be determined, and never give up."
National Engineers Week was founded in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers to honor the achievements of engineers like Semon. It is jointly sponsored by 18 engineering societies, including AIChE, and 15 major corporations, with the cooperation of hundreds of businesses, colleges, professional and technical societies, and government agencies. The event is held in February each year in honor of Washington's Birthday, since many consider George Washington to be the nation's first engineer.