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Polymer Advances in the Interwar Period: The Impact of Science on World War II

When I asked fellow staff members and students at the Army Command and General Staff College to tell me what came to mind when they heard the words “World War I,” by far the two most common answers were “trench warfare” and “attrition.” One statistic from that war is particularly sobering: Over the course of the war, both the Allied and Central Powers reconstituted their infantry ranks three times. No wonder people called it “the war to end all wars.” Those who studied the lessons learned from that tragedy quickly realized that the trench warfare that characterized World War I had become an untenable military tactic. For nations to wage future wars successfully, they would have to fight very differently. Militaries would need to incorporate technological advances more fully into their doctrine to help minimize losses.

By the start of World War II, scientists, in their study of polymer materials, had made many discoveries that facilitated the creation of new or improved products. Those products improved efficiency, which enabled militaries to better execute new doctrine that changed the way nations prosecuted war. Although not all of the inventors intended their products for military use, people nevertheless found ways to use them militarily, and some uses proved to be extremely valuable. Specifically, the Allies’ ability to capitalize on interwar discoveries in synthetic rubber, polyamide, polyethylene, and polytetraflouroethylene influenced the outcome of World War II by enabling the Allies to shoot, move, and communicate with greater ease, reliability, and lethality than could German and Japanese forces. Polymer advances since World War II continue to influence the way nations train for and fight wars.

A chronology of some of those technological advances can be found in publications such as Packaging Today magazine; various encyclopedias; and books such as Milestones in Science and Technology: The Ready Reference Guide to Discoveries, Inventions, and Facts, by Ellis Mount and Barbara List. These and other sources provide a fascinating look at the development of many important products in use today. Some of the facts and figures below are taken from these sources.

The Search for a Technological Edge

At the end of World War I, industry was still using natural resources to make products such as hoses, tires, valves, and gaskets. Manufacturers used textiles like cotton, wool, and silk to make clothing. Scientists already had played an important role in improving many of these resources. For example, Charles Goodyear’s discovery of the vulcanization process in 1839 (patented in 1844) made it possible to develop flexible, waterproof, winter-proof rubber tires. Still, in order to succeed at war, the United States needed to be able to support its military by expanding its technological edge without depending solely on natural resources that were vulnerable to control by enemy forces. Polymer products were the perfect way to do both.

Germany was devastated after World War I. The economic blockade of Germany by the Allies, which began in 1916, was not lifted until June 1919, 7 months after the armistice ended the war. This blockade is estimated to have caused the death of some 800,000 German civilians. During the interwar period, the German Army quickly began a comprehensive study of lessons learned, publishing their findings in a doctrinal manual that was based on a thorough assessment of World War I. However, while the Germans were busy learning, most Americans were unmindful of the connection between American prosperity and safety and the need for a free world. Politically, the United States sought isolation, and its military innovation consequently lagged during the interwar period. Nevertheless, scientists in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States made many spectacular (and sometimes collaborative) advances in the area of polymers. In fact, American industry developed some very innovative products during this period by capitalizing on the discoveries of independent inventors.

Synthetic Rubber

In the 1920’s, American scientist Wallace H. Carothers began his studies of the chemistry of giant molecules. His studies led him to confirm that high-molecular-weight molecules consist of repeating units of simple molecules (monomers) that are linked together by chemical bonds to form long chains (polymers), as first proposed in 1920 by German chemist Hermann Staudinger. Carothers’ work for E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company led to the company’s highly successful commercial production of neoprene, the first synthetic rubber made in the United States. Neoprene proved invaluable as a replacement for natural rubber because it was highly resistant to heat and chemicals, such as oil and gasoline, and it could be used to make fuel hoses and insulating material for machinery and plumbing.

In 1935, German chemists produced the first of a series of synthetic rubbers known as “buna rubbers.” One buna rubber, known as “Government rubber-styrene,” or GR–S, would become the basis for synthetic rubber production by the United States during World War II. Both the military and the industrial base needed rubber for vehicle tires, engine components, and other machine parts, so this invention would prove critical to the Allied Forces during World War II. Even though the Japanese controlled virtually all of the world’s rubber-producing regions in 1942, 50 U.S. factories were manufacturing synthetic rubber by 1944, producing a volume twice that of the entire world’s natural rubber production before the beginning of the war.

Polyamide

Although Carothers helped to invent synthetic rubber, some people know him best for his work with polyamide. The Harvard-trained scientist headed a secret DuPont program that culminated with the invention, marketing, and mass production of “Fiber 66,” commonly known as nylon. DuPont first introduced nylon at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City as a silk substitute. Its use for items such as stockings continued in the United States from 1939 until the outbreak of World War II. At that time, Japan, which provided most of the world’s raw silk, ceased exports to the United States. Of necessity, U.S. manufacturers stopped producing nylon stockings so that nylon could be used exclusively for military purposes, such as rope and parachutes for airborne troops.

Polyethylene

Another critical polymer developed during the interwar period was polyethylene, which was discovered in 1933 by British chemist R.O. Gibson. Polyethylene is waterproof and has good insulation qualities for use in electrical devices. Because of these characteristics, industry quickly saw polyethylene’s value to the communications field and started using it to insulate telephone wiring. The first commercial radiotelephone communication between continents occurred between New York and London in January 1927. By the end of 1933, the British were producing enough polyethylene to insulate submarine telephone cables. In fact, the development of coaxial cables with polyethylene insulation and other communications improvements, such as carrier frequency equipment and broadband repeaters, enabled the world to realize transatlantic telephony before World War II. From then on, both Government and civilian organizations used coaxial cables to conduct business over the transatlantic radiotelephone cable system. However, this was just the beginning of the possibilities for using polyethylene.

Polyethylene also contributed to the development of radar. In 1935, Scottish engineer Sir Robert Watson-Watt developed a warning system that could detect a plane 40 miles away. Later, in 1939, British scientists Harry Boot and John Randall invented the magnetron tube. This tube, coupled with the ability to insulate the warning system’s cables with polyethylene, enabled scientists to develop a radio detection and ranging (RADAR) system that would serve many purposes during World War II. The British Royal Air Force used it to locate and defeat incoming German Luftwaffe and rocket attacks. In the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy enhanced its power-projection capabilities by using radar to detect enemy vessels and aircraft and launching attacks even before making visual contact.

Polytetraflouroethylene

Regardless of how wonderful and useful they were, synthetic rubber, nylon, and polyethylene arguably pale in comparison to polytetraflouroethylene. This product, which American chemist Roy J. Plunkett accidentally discovered in 1938, would play a significant role in ending World War II and in saving countless lives since.

Plunkett had been attempting to develop a nontoxic refrigerant from gaseous tetraflouroethylene. Instead, he came up with polytetraflouroethylene, commonly known as Teflon, which was first used in the manufacture of gaskets and valves for the atomic bomb. As a result, military doctrine at the strategic level could switch from attrition to deterrence through mutual assured destruction (a military strategy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by one of two opposing sides would effectively result in the destruction of both the attacker and the defender, thereby deterring both sides from attacking). Because it contributed to making doctrinal change possible, Teflon undoubtedly has helped to save infinitely more lives than were lost at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Polymers Today

Today, the world uses polymers in countless ways. Their medical uses alone are too many to mention, but a few of the more common medical products made of polymers include synthetic rubber catheters, airway openers, latex gloves, plastic tubing, intravenous bags, cardiac stents, and autoclave instrument trays, as well as the ubiquitous Band-Aid. However, the most advanced products of all are artificial hips, knees, chins, noses, bones, and even corneas that are made of Teflon.

Advances in other polymers have equally significant applications today. For example, scientists originally planned to use neoprene for plumbing insulation; however, improvements in the product allow manufacturers to make clothing such as wetsuits, dry suits, aircraft pressure suits, and space suit undergarments, which all have great military significance. Military and commercial businesses use nylon to make much more than just clothing, rope, and parachutes. Because of its wear resistance when in bulk form, it is also perfect for making gears, bearings, bushings, and other mechanical parts. Polyethylene, the product originally used as a coating for cables, is the basic polymer used to make Kevlar for helmets and body armor and Nomex for fireproof clothing.

Polymer products developed during the interwar period truly had a huge impact on the outcome of World War II. Scientific advances during that period continue to help militaries shoot, move, and communicate with greater ease, reliability, and lethality while enabling technological advances to occur in virtually every other field. Indeed, research will continue to enable scientists to develop new polymers and further improve the ones the world currently uses, thus allowing researchers to bring to fruition technology that was once unimaginable.
ALOG

Major Paul Wakefield is assigned to the 84th Army Reserve Readiness Training Center at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, with duty as an instructor for the Department of Logistics and Resource Operations, Army Command and General Staff College. He has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Weber State University and a master’s degree in administration and management from Lindenwood University.