Nylon: The Greatest Inventions in the History of Climbing?

In looking into the greatest inventions in climbing history I first though if listing the things that make climbing safe and accessible.  I listed my top ten climbing inventions a few weeks back and when I looked back at this list it dawn on me that there was one material that without many of those individual parts of my list simply couldn’t exist, without we would still be using hemp rope and hob nail boots.

As I delved into its history I found out that the same team not only discovered Nylon but also the first synthetic rubber. This is short bringing together of that research into the history of Nylon.

It started in the 1920’s with a German chemist Herman Staudinger working in the neutral Switzerland who suggested the existence of long and complex polymers, made up by the joining together of smaller molecules. It took a long while for the scientific community to believe his theory.

It was left to an American borne scientist Wallance Hume Carothers, and his team at the DuPont research centre who proved his theories right, when in the 1930’s they discovered both Neoprene and Nylon. Two substances that are virtually omnipresent in today’s society, but before April 1930 Neoprene (The first Synthetic rubber) didn’t exist, and despite nearly giving up on the idea of long molecule polyesters due to their low melting point, but in 1934 the discovery of Nylon changed all that.

Nylon is as material that we simple take for granted nowadays, but lets take a look back at just what the pre-polymer age had for us. Parachutes and stockings were woven from the silk and natural thread from the humble silk worm, and ropes were braided from hemp.

As a modern climber, I think you need to consider the later hemp hawser laid rope. Made from essentially the husk of the hemp plant, whilst reasonable tough, the ropes which had been made this way or similarly since before 2800BC were heavy, virtually impossible to tie into knots, had little to no stretch to absorb any impact force and extremely weak. The saying the leader never fell wasn’t so much because in this age before harness, the leader might asphyxiate if they could get the weight off the rope, but more likely the rope would actually snap or just as break the climbers back.

As a natural, material hemp also was quite likely to rot if not dried properly, be eat en by vermin or succumb to any other number of deteriorations. Nylon was set to change the world in general, and then climbing. Its inventor and man seen as the discoverer of this new age was not to see the flight of suggest of this new material. As two years before Nylon went into commercial production Wallace who was like Winston church plagued by his ‘Black Dog’, succumbed to his depression shortly after the untimely death of his sister. He did not get to see the success of his mew material that was about to set the World Fair alight when it was used as an alternative material for women’s stockings.

The out break of the second world war meant that the production of nylon was moved onto more military focused products like parachutes and ropes. At first simply taking the traditional hawser laid design of three thick strands made up of many other individual twines wound round each other, and using Nylon rather than Hemp. Its better strength to weight ratio, and elasticity were instantly noticed. It was to lead to the eventual use by Edelwiess in1953, to construct the modern kernmantel rope, which was not only stronger, but more knotable and far better at absorbing impact than the older ropes.

More than that of course, as well as new ropes, the invention and use of nylon lead to taped slings and then of course the first climbing harnesses. So without Staudinger theory, and then Carothers’ team at DuPonts research, we might still be climbing with Hemp ropes and if you remember that team also synthesized the first rubber so without it we still might be in hobnailed boots as well!

So if you are reading this in the comfort of your own home and have a glass of your favorite tipple, or even if your at work with a cup of coffee then please join me raising a glass or mug to Wallace Hume Carothers and his team at DuPont. Without it the world wouldn’t have nylon stocking fetish’s or climbing rope.

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