Nathaniel Wyeth and the Invention of the PET Bottle

ID symbol for recycle, Nathaniel Wyeth

ID symbol for recycle, image: User:Tomia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On October 24, 1911, American mechanical engineer and inventor Nathaniel C. Wyeth was born. Wyeth is best known for creating polyethylene terephthalate that could withstand the pressure of carbonated liquids. Made of recyclable PET plastic, lighter than glass and virtually unbreakable, Wyeth’s invention is used widely today for both carbonated and non-carbonated drinks.

Nathaniel Wyeth – Background Information

Nathaniel C. Wyeth was born into America’s foremost family of artists: both of his sisters and most notably his brother, Andrew, followed in the footsteps of their father, artist and illustrator Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth. But by the age of 3, Nathaniel – then named N.C. Wyeth, Jr. – showed such a fascination for working the wheels and brakes of his baby carriage that his father renamed his son after his brother Nathaniel, an engineer.[3] Graduating from the Friends School in Wilmington, Delaware, Wyth earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.[1] After graduation, Wyeth joined his namesake uncle at General Motors, in their Delco division. But soon thereafter in 1936, Wyeth jumped at the chance to work for Du Pont Corporation as a field engineer in Wilmington, Delaware, not far from his hometown.

We’re gonna need a stronger plastic container

Wyeth began work on his best known invention in 1967. After wondering out loud at work why plastic was not used for carbonated beverage bottles, Wyeth was told that they would explode. He promptly went to a store, bought a plastic bottle of detergent, returned home, replaced the detergent with ginger ale, sealed the bottle, and put it in the refrigerator. The next morning, the bottle had swollen up so much that it was wedged solidly between the refrigerator shelves. Wyeth intuited that there was a way to make a stronger plastic container; and after a great deal of experimentation, he found it.[3]

The Invention of PET

Wyeth initially experimented with polypropylene, but ultimately settled on polyethylene terephthalate as the material and received the patent in 1973. Polyethylene terephthalate had previously been patented in 1941 by John Rex Whinfield, James Tennant Dickson and their employer the Calico Printers’ Association of Manchester, England. However, DuPont first used the trademark Mylar in June 1951 and received registration of it in 1952. In the Soviet Union, PET was first manufactured in the laboratories of the Institute of High-Molecular Compounds of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1949.

Later Life

In 1981, Nathaniel Wyeth received the Society of Plastics Engineers international award for outstanding achievement, and was inducted into the Society of the Plastics Industry Hall of Fame five years later. Wyeth was the first person ever named senior engineering fellow at DuPont, the company’s highest technical position. Nathaniel invented or co-invented twenty-five products. In 1990, Wyeth was award DuPont’s Lavoisier Award for Technical Achievement. In 1990, Wyeth was awarded DuPont’s Lavoisier Award for Technical Achievement. Further innovations by Wyeth include improvements to manufacturing processes, plastics, textileselectronics and mechanical devices. PET is also eminently recyclable. Though recycling was not a major concern to Wyeth at the time he patented his process in 1973, PET soda bottles were first recycled in 1977, and are now perhaps the most commonly recycled household products.

Brajesh Kumar Dubey, Lecture 05 : Plastics – Global Statistics, [3]

References and Further Reading:

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