1938 Roy Plunkett
In 1938 Roy Plunkett was investigating refrigerants he had stored in a cylinder. Upon reopening the container he found that the gas was gone. It had polymerized, forming polytetrafluoroethylene, a resin that was extremely slippery and highly resistant to chemicals and heat. During World War II the material was particularly useful in the Manhattan Project. In the 1950s, the material–now trademarked Teflon®–became common in the electronic, chemical and automotive industries. The market for Teflon boomed in the early 1960s when it became available for non-stick cookware.
Roy J. Plunkett (1910-1994) is best known as the inventor of Teflon, but he also had a long career at DuPont for several decades after his famous discovery in 1938. Plunkett joined DuPont directly after receiving his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Ohio State University in 1936. He was only 27 years old in April 1938 when he found something unusual while experimenting with gasses relating to Freon® refrigerants. Overnight, a sample had frozen into a whitish, waxy solid. Rather than discard the apparent mistake, Plunkett and his assistant tested the new polymer and found that it had some very unusual properties: it was extremely slippery as well as inert to virtually all chemicals, including highly corrosive acids. The product, trademarked as Teflon in 1945, was first used by the military in artillery shell fuses and in the production of nuclear material for the Manhattan Project. After World War II, DuPont found a wide range of uses for Teflon, such as electrical cable insulation, soil and stain repellant for fabrics, and coating for non-stick cookware.
Plunkett left DuPont’s Jackson Laboratory, the site of his famous discovery, in 1939 to become Chief Chemist at the company’s Chambers Works tetraethyl lead (TEL) plant. He remained there in several administrative positions through 1952, then moved to the Organic Chemicals Department before finally returning to Freon Products. He retired as Director of Operations of Freon Products in 1975. Plunkett received many honors, including election to the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985. DuPont honored him with an award in his name, first given in 1988 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his discovery of Teflon. The Plunkett Award recognizes those who contribute important new products using Teflon.