Nylon is a
synthetic polymer, a plastic, invented on February 28, 1935 by Wallace
Carothers at the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company of Wilmington, Delaware,
USA. The material was announced in 1938 and the first nylon products; a
nylon bristle toothbrush made with nylon yarn (went on sale on February
24, 1938) and more famously, women's stockings (went on sale on May 15,
1940). Nylon fibres are now used to make many synthetic fabrics, and solid
nylon is used as an engineering material.
Chemically, nylon is a
condensation polymer made of repeating units with
between them: hence it is frequently referred to as a polyamide.
It was the first synthetic fibre to be made entirely from inorganic ingredients:
coal, water and air. These are formed into two intermediate chemicals, most
commonly hexamethylene diamine and adipic acid (a dicarboxylic acid), which
are then mixed to polymerise. The most common variant is nylon 6,6, also
called nylon 66, which refers to the fact that both the diamine and the
diacid have 6 carbon backbones. The diacid and diamine units alternate in
the polymer chain. Therefore, unlike natural polyamides like proteins, the
direction of the amide bond reverses at each bond.
There is no evidence for the popular belief
that "nylon" is a contraction of "NY" (for "New
York") and "Lon" for "London", the two cities where
the material was first manufactured. In 1940 John W. Eckelberry of Du Pont
stated that the letters "nyl" were arbitrary and the "on"
was copied from the names of other fibres such as
A later publication by Du Pont (Context, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978) explained
that the name was originally intended to be "No-Run" ("run"
in this context meaning "unravel"), but was then modified to avoid
making such an unjustified claim and to make it sound better. The story
goes that Carothers changed one letter at a time until Du Pont's management
Another popular belief is that nylon stands
for "now you, lazy old nippon," as nylon was developed in the
1930s. In this sentence nippon stands for Japan, as in the 1930s, the decade
in which nylon was developed, a chemical "war" was taking place
between the US and Japan.
Even though the word nylon was coined,
it was never trademarked.
During World War II, nylon replaced
silk in parachutes. It
was also used to make tires, tents, ropes,
ponchos, and other military
supplies. It was even used in the production of a high-grade
paper for US currency. At the outset of the War, cotton
accounted for more than 80 percent of all fibres used, and
manufactured and wool fibres accounted for the remaining
20 percent. By August, 1945, manufactured fibres had risen
to 25 percent, and cotton had dropped to 75 percent.
conspiracy theorists surmise that cannabis was made
illegal because the fibres from the
hemp plant, used for
fabrics and ropes, were
in strong competition with nylon. However, nylon fiber is
more than twice as strong as hemp fiber and weighs 25% less.
While hemp was originally used in climbing rope, it is now
virtually unused in modern climbing, including countries
where cannabis is legal.