Nylon and the double helix

Both nylon and DNA play major roles in today’s economy, and both were discovered on February 28th of different years. Wallace Carothers, working for DuPont, invented nylon in 1935, while Francis Crick and James Watson on this day in 1953, excitedly told friends about the double helical structure of DNA.

The significance of nylon is that it is a fully synthetic fabric, made entirely from chemicals. There had long been semi-synthetic fabrics made from animal or vegetable products, starting with linen, made from flax and dating back thousands of years. Rayon, another semi-synthetic made from wood, was first produced in 1905. Nylon, made from petroleum products, was the first commercially successful fully synthetic fabric. Women’s stockings made from nylon were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and the product came along just in time to replace imports during World War II. It was used for parachutes and ropes throughout the war.

Carothers was not primarily motivated by money, though his move from Harvard to DuPont nearly doubled his salary. He had an enquiring, problem-solving mind, and liked to take on difficult challenges and succeed where others had fallen short. Nylon was his greatest achievement, although he was also a key figure in the development of neoprene synthetic rubber. Unfortunately, he never lived to see the full success of nylon. He was a depressive, and committed suicide in 1937, not knowing the degree to which his achievements had left their mark on the world.

Francis Crick and James Watson worked at Cambridge using X-ray crystallography data from Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Watson’s book, “The Double Helix,” is regarded as a classic of popular science, telling the story of their discovery in a gripping first-person account. It was a race to be the first to decode the structure of DNA, with Linus Pauling as their main rival. Both worked feverishly, desperately afraid that someone would beat them to it. When they finally realized it was a double helix, they dashed to the Eagle pub in Cambridge and drew the double helix in beer on the table to explain it to their friends. It’s a pub I sometimes visit, and it has a plaque marking the discovery.

They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, jointly with Wilkins. Franklin had died tragically young aged 37, four years earlier, and could not share the prize because it is not awarded posthumously. Although the Nobel Prize came with a substantial sum, this was not what motivated them. They did it for the excitement and achievement of discovery, like Carothers, and had the additional motivation of glory. They wanted to be acclaimed by their peers, and knew that success would likely bring the coveted prize.

In both cases the discoverers made the breakthrough, but entrepreneurs turned it into commercial success. DuPont made handsome returns by promoting both nylon and neoprene with aggressive market strategies. And many businesses have profited by applying the discovery of DNA to practical and medicinal uses. I had significant portions of my genome mapped by 23andMe shortly after the company was founded in 2006. Now I am in the process of having my full DNA sequenced by a commercial firm that does so.

It is important to understand that it takes not only discoverers moved by the thrill of solving the problem; it also takes entrepreneurs to turn that discovery into something that people will willingly pay for. Nylon and DNA are but two examples of something that happens all the time.