At GE Plastics and many other companies, unrelated incidents often led to great achievements.
For GE it came down to this: The impatience shown by Dan Fox as a graduate student in Oklahoma eventually led to his discovering Lexan polycarbonate.
Fox came to chemistry after serving as a bomber pilot in World War II. Prior to that, he had worked in a forge shop at Bethlehem Steel Corp. and had operated his own gas station. After the war, he earned chemistry degrees and was doing post-doctoral work at the University of Oklahoma.
The project Fox was working on at the time called for a phenolic compound called guaiacol. But the university's stock room was out of guaiacol, so Fox had to substitute guaiacol carbonate. He noticed that a phenyl-carbonate bond retained its properties when placed in contact with water — even though that ran counter to what Fox had learned in organic chemistry courses.
Fast-forward to 1953, when Fox was working for GE on a wire enamel project at the firm's research and development lab in Schenectady, N.Y. Fox wondered if a PC polymer would show the same extreme stability shown by the phenyl-carbonate combination he had seen in Oklahoma.
It did — and that led to creation of “Dan Fox's lollipop.” That was GE's name for the blob of amber-colored PC that formed on the end of a metal stirring rod in Fox's experiment. Fox observed that the blob was so hard that “you could drive nails with it.”
So if Fox had been patient enough to wait for the right chemical as a student, or if the university's chemistry lab had been better stocked, Lexan would not exist. The Bayer AG chemists who independently discovered PC in Germany that same year would have had bragging rights all to themselves.
Longtime GE executive Jerome Coe chronicled Fox's achievements, along with other aspects of GE history, in Unlikely Victory: How General Electric Succeeded in the Chemical Industry. GE Plastics officially was formed in 1967, and now is being sold to Saudi Basic Industries Corp. for $11.6 billion.
GE's plastics history extends well before Dan Fox. GE's molded plastics, laminates and phenolic resin efforts were combined into a plastics unit in 1930, but the firm's plastics activities date back to 1909, when it licensed Bakelite — the phenol/formaldehyde hybrid that's considered the world's first synthetic plastic — from its creator, independent inventor Leo Baekeland.
The firm soon came up with plenty of its own plastic products, urged on by a 1912 letter sent by GE technologist Charles Steinmetz to the Pittsfield lab, urging it to work on new flexible insulating resins. At the outset, insulation was the name of the game for GE's plastics efforts.
Over the years, GE Plastics has been known for powerful marketing of its products, as well as for the products themselves. Lexan may be the most widely recognized trade name in the resin field, where few materials have been able to distinguish themselves from common descriptions.
One of the more colorful marketing efforts occurred in the 1960s, when Lexan ads touted the fact that star baseball pitchers Bob Gibson and Denny McClain weren't able to break Lexan panels with their fastballs.
The marketing must have worked. Lexan sales were less than $2 million in 1961, but almost had reached the $20 million mark by 1968. Last year, GE Plastics' sales of PC, ABS and other engineering resins and related products were almost $7 billion.