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
Rohm and Haas (now The Dow Chemical Company) | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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. Learn more.
Bakelite: The World’s First Synthetic Plastic
National Museum of American History | Washington, D.C.
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. Learn more.
Columbia Dry Cell Battery
Energizer Holdings, Inc. | Cleveland, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri
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. Maintenance-free, durable, no-spill, and inexpensive, this electrochemical power source immediately found use in the emerging telephone and automobile industries. The technology served as the basis for all dry cell batteries for the next sixty years. Learn more.
Cotton Products Research
USDA ARS Southern Regional Research Center | New Orleans, Louisiana
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. Learn more.
DayGlo Fluorescent Pigments
Day-Glo Color Corp. | Cleveland, Ohio
DayGlo fluorescent pigments, a new class of pigments based on fluorescent dyes and polymeric materials, were developed between the 1930s and 1950s by scientists at Switzer Brothers, Inc. (now Day-Glo Color Corp.). These pigments absorb various light frequencies (visible and invisible to the human eye) and reemit them, producing intense visible colors that appear to glow, even in daylight. Fluorescent pigments are widely recognizable for their applications in advertising, packaging, flaw detection and safety. Learn more.
Development of Baking Powder
Clabber Girl Corporation | East Providence, Rhode Island, and Terre Haute, Indiana
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.
Flavor Chemistry Research
USDA ARS Western Regional Research Center | Albany, California
Flavor—encompassing both aroma and taste—provides the defining characteristic of how we experience food. Since the 1940s, researchers at the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) have worked to establish the scientific understanding of the chemical essence of flavor. Research led by WRRC scientists resulted in improvements to processed foods and development of state-of-the-art measures to monitor food quality, establishing the WRRC as a leader in the field of flavor science. Learn more.
Food Dehydration Technology
USDA ARS Eastern Regional Research Center | Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania
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 USDA Eastern Regional Research Cente. 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.
Frozen Foods Research
USDA ARS Western Regional Research Center | Albany, California
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 USDA's Western Regional Research Center. The freezing protocols, analytical techniques, and food handling and storage recommendations from the WRRC led to the superior flavor, texture, and appearance of today’s frozen food. Learn more.
George Washington Carver
Tuskegee University | Tuskegee, Alabama
There is the popular image of George Washington Carver known to every schoolchild in the United States: he was born a slave, worked hard to gain an education and become a scientist, taught at Tuskegee Institute, and became the Peanut Man who discovered myriad uses for the lowly legume.Of course, the story is not that simple. Yet despite criticisms of Carver, there is no denying his role in developing new uses for Southern agricultural crops and teaching poor Southern farmers methods of soil improvement. Learn more.
Modern Water-based Paints: Kem-Tone Wall Finish
The Sherwin-Williams Company | Cleveland, Ohio
In 1941, The Sherwin-Williams Company introduced Kem-Tone Wall Finish, the first commercially successful, durable, waterborne wall paint. 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
3M Company | St. Paul, Minnesota
It is so commonplace that it is easy to take for granted, yet Scotch 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 Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) engineers persisted and ultimately triumphed, creating what has become one of the most ubiquitous and successful products ever developed. Learn more.
Thomas Edison, Chemist
Edison & Ford Winter Estates | Fort Myers, Florida
The Henry Ford | Dearborn, Michigan
Thomas Edison National Historical Park | West Orange, New Jersey
Thomas Alva Edison is an unparalleled figure in the history of the United States. Born into a middle-class family in the American Midwest during the 1840s and with little formal education, Edison became a household name for his inventions that ushered in a new era of modernity with light and sound in every home. With more than 1,000 patents and inventions that inspired people throughout the nation, Edison was an able experimenter who took a keen interest in chemistry at a young age, and chemical applications were a central theme in many of his inventions. Learn more.
Tide Synthetic Detergent
Procter & Gamble | Cincinnati, Ohio
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 P&G rushed the new product to market. Tide was an instant success. Learn more.