Why do we Call it Nylon Anyway?

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Originally published March 2, 2016

Did you know that Parmesan cheese is trademarked and refers only to cheese produced in a specific region of Italy? It is illegal in Europe to call cheese produced outside 5 specific Italian provinces Parmesan. There has never been any Kobe beef sold in the United States. Kobe is a Japanese trademark and refers to beef specifically from Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, even though every restaurant in Las Vegas serves it. How about Balsamic Vinegar? Oh, you get the idea.

We have a bad habit of ignoring these food trademarks in the United States although in recent years, the Champagne trademark seems to be respected a bit with all of the products not from Champagne France being called sparkling wine instead.

How about Nylon? A number of chemical companies all around the world call their product Nylon but what is Nylon? Is it a chemical name? No, the chemical name is polyamide. Why is all polyamide referred to as Nylon? Is this another violation of someone’s valuable trademark?

Actually the term nylon is not trademarked even though DuPont did coin the term. It’s an interesting story.

In 1935 a Harvard educated scientist named Dr. Wallace Carothers was working in a research laboratory at DuPont in Delaware experimenting with polyamide polymers trying to find some formulation that might be able to be used to make fiber. He found one. After determining that it could be manufactured relatively inexpensively, executives at DuPont decided to use the fiber to target the women’s stockings market which was a huge market. Stockings were made out of silk at the time. The silk was expensive and delicate.

A batch of polyamide fiber was made in secret and brought to a commercial knitting mill to try and make stockings out of the new material. After several tries they were successful and DuPont started construction on a plant that would produce this new fiber. Amazingly, DuPont was making polyamide stockings at the new plant in 1939, just four years after inventing the new material. They also used the new material to make toothbrush bristles. Unfortunately Carothers, a lifelong sufferer of depression committed suicide in 1936 so he never saw the success that his invention became.

DuPont executives wanted to call the material for the stockings No-Run meaning that the fabric would not un-weave or unravel. While polyamide fiber stockings might have been more durable than silk, they would still run so the name was scrapped because the claim was simply not true.

Next comes, in what I can only imagine looked like a scene from The Hudsucker Proxy DuPont executives tried to come up with a better name for this revolutionary new product. In playing with the phrase no-run, they thought that it might be a good idea to end the name with “-on” so that it would sound similar to Rayon (another DuPont product) as well as cotton. So no-run became Nuron which is no-run spelled backward but unfortunately sounded like some type of medication.  They then came up with Nilon which sounded good but it was feared that people would not know how to pronounce it so the “I” was replaced with a “Y” and there you have it. Funny, how a term that has embedded itself into the lexicon was almost totally random.

There is another version of the story that says that the word Nylon is simply a combination of New York and London: NY-Lon. I kind of doubt this.

Oddly, DuPont never trademarked the word nylon.  Because DuPont made a lot of materials that were used to make other products and not the products themselves they did not have a lot of control over the quality of the final product. If they trademarked Nylon and a company made poor quality stockings with the Nylon trademark, the poor quality would reflect on DuPont. This theory came from an experience that they had with a rubber that they invented called DuPrene in the early thirties. Several manufacturers of rubber goods made lousy products and then advertised that they were made of DuPrene from the DuPont Company. DuPont responded by abandoning the DuPrene name and calling the material neoprene which was not trademarked.

This was an interesting strategy but I suspect that your average business school student would laugh at it. What do you think Donald Trump would think of this branding strategy? It seems that DuPont thought better of this in later years because shortly after nylon, DuPont started trade-marking all of their new names such as Orlon, Dacron, Lycra, Teflon, Nomex and on and on and on. In later years DuPont began vigorously defending its patents and trademarks in court getting into legal battles with everyone from Bed Bath & Beyond to the Japanese zipper manufacturer, YKK.

Wikipedia indicates that the global nylon market was worth US $20.5 Billion dollars in 2013 and is expected to hit $30 Billion by 2020. After the commercialization of Nylon by DuPont, other large manufacturers such as German chemical giant BASF and American chemical company Monsanto (later Solutia and later still Ascend). Amazingly, one of the biggest and most well known product names is used by everyone because of a strange decision by the brass at DuPont in the 1930s.

One thought on “Why do we Call it Nylon Anyway?”

  1. Pingback: Nylon Decoded

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