The 20th century brought an explosion of new products for consumers. Manmade products such as plastics and nylon proved stronger, more enduring, and more versatile than their natural counterparts. Even frozen and dehydrated foods were made possible by advances in food research.
Acrylic Emulsion Technology
Developed by Rohm and Haas in the 1940s, water-based acrylic emulsion technology filled a need for easy-to-use household paints for a growing suburban population in the United States following World War II. This aqueous technology required less preparation to use, was easier to clean up, had less odor, and performed better than or equal to paints made with solvents. The result was a paint which had low odor, cleaned up with water, was color fast, and resisted cracking and yellowing. It was also a leap forward in acrylic chemistry. Learn more.
Bakelite: The World’s First Synthetic Plastic
In 1907 Belgian-born chemist and entrepreneur Leo Baekeland mixed phenol and formaldehyde, subjected them to heat and pressure, and produced the sticky, amber-colored resin he named Bakelite. Bakelite, the world's first completely synthetic plastic, could be molded quickly into different shapes, an enormous advantage in mass production processes, and retained its shape even when heated or subjected to solvents. Soon Bakelite was being used for everything from jewelry to light bulb sockets. Its use diminished only when other, more brightly colored plastics were introduced. Learn more.
Columbia Dry Cell Battery
Imagine a world without batteries: It would be a world without many of the conveniences of modern life, and without some of the necessities. In 1896 the National Carbon Company (predecessor of Energizer) introduced the first battery marketed for consumer use. The Columbia, a maintenance-free, durable, no-spill, inexpensive electrochemical power source, immediately found use in the emerging telephone and automobile industries. The technology of the Columbia, a carbon-zinc battery using an acidic electrolyte, served as the basis for all dry cell batteries for the next sixty years. Learn more.
Cotton Products Research
By the 1950s, synthetic fabrics—often wrinkle resistant and flame retardant—began to overtake cotton as the dominant U.S. textile fiber. To reverse this trend chemists and chemical engineers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) initiated research to modify cotton chemically. SRRC studies improved durable press fabrics and developed new agents that improved the durability of flame retardant cotton to laundering. These significant advances in the properties of cotton enabled this natural fiber to remain a highly competitive textile. Learn more.
Development of Baking Powder
Bread is considered a basic foodstuff; eaten down through the ages, it continues to be a staple of the modern diet. In the mid-19th century, Eben Horsford devised a unique mixture of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and calcium acid phosphate, which he named "yeast powder" and later called baking powder. In the presence of water, the mixture releases carbon dioxide, which leavens biscuits, cookies and quick breads. The development of baking powder made baking easier, quicker and more reliable for bakers in the mid-19th century and beyond. Learn more.
Development of Tide®
The description of synthetic detergents as the first big change in soap making in two millennia is hardly an exaggeration. Tide, the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent, was not just a new product, but a new kind of product. It was based on synthetic compounds rather than natural products. After years of research the correct formula finally was found, and Proctor & Gamble rushed the new product to market. Tide was an instant success; its popularity was boosted by the simultaneous introduction of automatic washing machines which saved the consumer time and effort. Learn more.
Food Dehydration Technology
Instant mashed potatoes are commonplace on grocery shelves and have found wide use institutionally and in domestic and international food aid programs. The most successful form of instant mashed potatoes resulted from the flake process developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Eastern Regional Research Center, a United States Department of Agriculture facility outside of Philadelphia. The process for reconstituting instant mashed potatoes devised at this facility utilized dehydration technology. Subsequent research at the ERRC led to the introduction of other high-quality dehydrated vegetable products, many of these the result of research in explosion-puffing processes. Learn more.
Foundations of Polymer Science: Wallace Carothers and the Development of Nylon
The research of Wallace Carothers not only confirmed the existence of molecules of extremely high molecular weight, but his work quickly led to DuPont’s highly successful commercial production of neoprene, the first synthetic rubber made in the United States, and nylon, the world's first totally synthetic textile fiber. These products were among the earliest successes of a fundamental research program novel in the American chemical industry. Nylon in particular proved revolutionary to the textile industry and led the way for a variety of synthetic materials that have had enormous social and economic impact. Learn more.
Frozen Foods Research
Frozen foods have become a staple of the modern diet. Freezing allows consumers to have access to foods previously unavailable or available only seasonally, and it provides convenience for many families. But frozen foods became commonplace only after World War II, in part due to research conducted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Western Regional Research Center (WRRC). The freezing protocols, analytical techniques, and food handling and storage recommendations from the WRRC studies led to the superior flavor, texture, and appearance of today’s frozen food. Learn more.
Modern Water-based Paints: Kem-Tone© Wall Finish
In 1941, The Sherwin-Williams Company introduced Kem-Tone© Wall Finish, the first commercially successful, durable, waterborne wall paint. The product was based on the commercial innovation of emulsifying casein and linseed oil as binders. This technology led to the development of improved waterborne paints by replacing naturally occurring binders with synthetic ones. The innovative technology that made Kem-Tone© a success permanently changed the architectural painting habits and products of the United States: Kem-Tone Wall Finish dried quickly, was easy to apply, and became an instant hit with consumers. Learn more.
Scotch® Transparent Tape
It is so commonplace that it is easy to take for granted, yet Scotch Transparent Tape has an extraordinary history marked with audacity, serendipity, and "stick-to-itiveness." For a time in its early development, the very idea of transparent tape seemed ludicrous as each day stacks of spoiled cellophane piled up several feet high on a laboratory floor. Yet driven by what was to become a corporate credo—"Thou shalt not kill a new product idea"—Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) engineers persisted and ultimately triumphed, creating what was to become one of the most ubiquitous and successful products ever developed. Learn more.
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