Who Invented The PVC Material That Made Industrial Canopies?
Pop-up industrial shelters need to be lightweight, exceptionally durable and flexible enough to be easily set up.
All of this is made possible by the unique properties of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the most commonly used plastics in the world, found in everything from cable insulation to vinyl records and as part of modern canvas.
However, the original creator of PVC, Eugen Baumann, never patented it and one of the most important components of our business could have potentially been thrown away if it was not for another discovery over half a century later that turned trash into treasure.
The Path Not Taken
Prior to Mr Baumann’s discovery, a French chemist by the name of Henri Victor Regnault was working on thermodynamic experiments and much like many chemists of the era, managed to accidentally leave one of his flasks out in the daylight.
He found a hard white substance that would turn out to be the first-ever PVC material, but given that it was a hard white lump, he could not find a use for it and decided not to patent it.
Mr Baumann’s discovery was somewhat similar, although there appeared to be more intention with his creation of it. Unfortunately, he ended up with the same problem that Mr Regnault had and would not patent what became one of the most important industrial substances on earth.
Both chemists turned out absolutely fine. Mr Regnault was one of the first thermodynamicists, who found methods to carefully measure gases and disproved Boyle’s Law as an approximate measure. His legacy was cemented during and after PVC.
Mr Baumann, on the other hand, developed the Shotten-Baumann reaction with chemist Carl Schotten. This process allowed for the synthesis of the prostate cancer drug flutamide as well as synthetic capsaicin, the compound that makes chilli peppers taste hot.
However, in both cases, their greatest potential invention was thrown in the bin, and it took an Alabama inventor over half a century later to pick it back up.
Another Man’s Treasure
Born in Demopolis Alabama in 1898, Waldo Semon was fascinated by the previous failed experiments to make something out of PVC, a material with theoretical potential but limited by its extreme rigidity.
Fritz Klatt of Griesheim-Elektron and chemist Ivan Ostromislensky both failed to make anything useful with PVC due to its brittle and rigid nature.
He claimed that people at the BF Goodrich factory he worked at thought PVC was worthless as late as 1926, but he wondered if it could potentially react to a solvent boiled to a high temperature and mixed with various additives now known as plasticisers to create an adhesive that could stick metal to rubber.
Instead, he created a non-adhesive material but one that was elastic, with properties very similar to rubber but with far more versatility.
In total, he held 116 patents and even created a synthetic bubble gum that was never sold.
He lived to the age of 100 years before passing away on 26th May 1999.
Without his contributions, versatile industrial-strength canopies simply could not exist.