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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Exceptional American of the Day: Waldo Semon

One man's trash is another man's treasure, or in the case of polyvinyl chloride, everyone's treasure, thanks to a chemist from Alabama by way of Washington state who invented vinyl in Akron, the Rubber City. In so doing, Waldo Lonsbury Semon helped win World War II, made suburbia cheaper and healthier, and helped bring rock and roll to you. Not only was Semon a master chemist, but he also was a bit of a spy who outfoxed Hitler.

Born on September 10, 1898, in Demopolis, Alabama, Semon's father, Frank Emerson Semon, was a civil engineer, who traveled widely building electrical generating plants.

Waldo Semon learned to read and write before entering first grade. He enjoyed Shakespeare and his father's engineering textbooks. He attended nine schools in five states before the family settled in Seattle, where he graduated from Lincoln High School in 1916. He had spent summers working with surveying crews, a job that usually required a college degree.

But he was more than a bookworm. At age 11, he learned to shoot -- from Buffalo Bill Cody himself.

"At 17, I think I was rather conceited. I had read most of the scientific books in the [Seattle libraries]. I could read a great deal of German. I had been on the high school debating team and read many of the decisions of the Supreme Court. There was a great question in my mind whether I should go to college at all. After all, college graduates were so stuffy," he told biographer Elizabeth M. Smith decades later.

After a year of working with a crew surveying the Cascade Mountains, Semon settled down. He enrolled at the University of Washington, graduating in 1920 and earning a doctorate in chemistry in 1924. He taught classes as a graduate student, earning money on the side as a consultant. In 1926, the state legislature decided to confiscate such consulting fees from state employees, and Semon decided to leave the state. B.F. Goodrich hired him to do research and development in Akron, Ohio.

Semon and his wife decided to drive to Akron in a 1918 Ford touring car. There were no interstates and the backroads were terrible. After experiencing 14 tire punctures along the way, Semon was determined to make a better tire.

The tire industry was beholden to the rubber plantations. The search was on for a synthetic rubber.

German scientists has invented PVC in the 19th century, but it was too brittle. Upon his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995, the then 97-year-old Semon recalled the situation: “People thought of PVC as worthless back then. They’d throw it in the trash."

Indeed, it was just a waste product in the production of rubber, but Semon became convinced that he could make PVC work. And he did. Years later, he explained to National Public Radio how he got it to work.

"My wife had been making curtains for the living room. I brought some of the fabric into the laboratory and coated it with PVC, and lo and behold, it looked like silk and it was waterproof. I became so enthusiastic that I forgot about protocol and went directly to the vice president of sales, and he looked at it and he says, 'Hell, what do you mean, waterproof?' So I grabbed the fabric and put it on top of his incoming mail and took a decanter of water and poured it. Oh, he was really frightened, but it didn't leak," Semon said.

Then he added, "I've often wondered what would have happened to me or to PVC if it had leaked."

America and the world was about to enter the Age of Vinyl. PVC became the second-most-popular plastic in the world behind polyethylene. Its used to make raincoats, umbrellas, credit cards, bumper stickers, garden hoses, luggage, vinyl records, and hundreds of other products. Its best use is in pipes, which carry clean water, and dispose of sewage, in modern homes. This development helped suburbanize America.

But inventing a process that revolutionized the world was unappreciated by the corporate bureaucracy.

“It took a long time to really interest anyone in PVC,” he said. “B.F. Goodrich at the time was a rubber company. They thought of nothing but rubber and this was not a rubber product, so I had a very interesting experience selling the idea to the management.”

Gradually, the company introduced a few vinyl products but passed on his invention of an alternative to bubble gum (which was invented by Walter Diemer in 1928). When the patent on Semon's bubble gum expired, Bazooka swooped in and developed it.

But as war loomed, Semon worked on synthetic rubber for tires. He based it on Buna-S, which the Germans had developed, but of course was not going to share this secret with its adversaries. He visited Germany in 1937, but his fellow scientists did not let him in on their secret.

“However, it was really a great experience for me to ride around Germany on tires made from Buna-S! I came back more enthused than ever and convinced that if Germany would not give us their method for making synthetic rubber, we could develop a process of our own," he said.

He knew the Germans used butadiene and styrene to make Buna-S.

"Of the 14,492 experiments we carried out, there were only around 111 promising enough for further detailed development, and of them were only six that looked good enough to be pilot planted,” Semon said.

They shifted their compound to butadiene and methyl methacrylate, already commonly used to make Lucite windows. Production of tires using Liberty Rubber, as they called it, began in 1940.

After the war, he became head of the research department. He received 116 patents over the years. He retired in 1963 at 65 after 37 years with the tire company. He went on to teach at Kent State.

He died at age 100 on May 26, 1999.

But besides vinyl, he gave the world a small nature preserve. In 1974, he donated 122 acres of backwoods to the Summit Metro Parks. The Waldo Semon Conservation Area is a home to beaver, heron, and wild rice.


I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1.

Which is better? "Exceptional Americans 1" or the new book, "Exceptional Americans 2"?

Buy both and tell me.

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