April 6, 1938—On his very first assignment in DuPont’s largest lab, chemist Roy J. Plunkett made a mistake. Fortunately, it did not blow the place to smithereens or lead to one of those sci-fi nightmares out of The Fly, but rather resulted in one of the great inventions of the century, at least as far as anyone laboring in a kitchen is concerned: tetrafluoroethylene resin, better known as Teflon.
In Jackson Lab in Deepwater, New Jersey, the 28-year-old scientist was synthesizing new forms of the DuPont refrigerant Freon®. He and assistant Jack Rebok had produced and stored more than 100 pounds of tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) at dry-ice temperatures before chlorinating it.
But as they prepared a cylinder for use, none of the gas was released—yet surprisingly, the cylinder weighed exactly the same. Opening the cylinder, an annoyed Plunkett found flakes of white powder spilling out.
When he got over his surprise, Plunkett broadened his research beyond the objective at hand by testing the powder for more than just its refrigeration potential, discovering not only that it was heat resistant and chemically inert, but that most other substances would not stick to it. Over a year later, after he was able to recreate through experimentation what he had found by accident, he took out a patent for the substance, shortening its name to Teflon. The patent was granted two years later.
During World War II, polymerized tetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) played such an important role in military applications that DuPont agreed to reserve its entire output for government use. It was especially critical to the Manhattan Project, where it was used to separate the isotope U-235 (which makes up about 0.7 percent of the element uranium in its natural state) from U-238.
In 1944, DuPont’s production unit for PTFE in Arlington, N.J., was rocked by an explosion. Working in utmost secrecy, investigators determined that the accident occurred because of chemical processes rather than sabotage. The unit was rebuilt, with heavy barricades surrounding it.
The military uses of PTFE pointed to larger commercial possibilities that DuPont eagerly explored in the postwar period. Still, the company was wary, despite intensive and successful testing, about using Teflon for kitchen purposes, worrying about product liability. When it finally did act, it was as a result of pressure from, of all places, France.
Hearing about Teflon from a colleague, an engineer, Marc Gregoire, decided it would be a neat idea to put the substance on his dearly beloved fishing gear in order to prevent tangles. But his wife Colette was the real smarty in the relationship: Why not try it on her frying pans? Marc thought about it, tried it, and when it proved successful, they even started selling it on the streets of France and, eventually, set up their own business.
Before long, multiple kinds of nonstick cookware were being sold in the U.S. The first look Americans got at the stuff on their home turf was in 1960, at a banquet for Plunkett, who had just been awarded Philadelphia’s Scott Medal for his invention. Attendees at the banquet walked home with a complimentary muffin tin coated with Teflon. By the end of that year, at the worst possible time—the Christmas season--Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square ran out of its supply from France.
Shortly thereafter, so many inferior knockoffs of nonstick cookware were being sold that DuPont felt it needed to step in to save its reputation. (Not that the desire to make a buck didn’t play a role.) In 1968, it came up with Teflon II, which the company promoted as not only non-stick but even scratch-resistant. The product now became a part of consumer history.
And, two decades later, political history, too. Trying to come explain why President Ronald Reagan escaped unpopularity despite policies that hurt large numbers of voters, a congresswoman from Colorado with a gift for soundbites, Patricia Schroeder, found the perfect image while fixing eggs for her children one morning.
The President, the liberal Democrat told reporters, had a Teflon coat like the pan she was using, so nothing stuck to him. Within a year, the media had widely adopted her phrase: “Teflon President.”
The phrase--much like Plunkett's original product--was even adapted for other uses, as crime reporters, accounting for mobster John Gotti’s initial ability to wiggle out of guilty verdicts for his crimes, referred to him as “The Teflon Don.”