Dow Chemical Co.'s rich plastics history depended on transforming a field of drums into a field of dreams.
Midland, Mich.-based Dow had developed its first plastic, ethylene cellulose, in the mid-1930s, but its venture into styrene monomer was floundering in the summer of 1937. Orders from customers like DuPont, Monsanto and Bakelite had dried up, and styrene from Dow's 500,000-pound-capacity plant in Midland was piling up in 55-gallon drums stored behind the plant.
As summer dragged on, the unsold barrels were sprayed down with water so they would not explode in the heat. Dow began making polystyrene only to use up the excess styrene, company historian E.N. Brandt wrote in Growth Company: Dow Chemical's First Century, a company history published in 1997.
But the fledgling PS operation would go on to become one of Dow's largest and most profitable units. More styrene was needed during World War II to meet the need for synthetic styrene butadiene rubber when the U.S. rubber supply was cut off by the Japanese. But the 1937 barrel buildup was remembered in paintings and photos that hung on the walls of Dow's plastics offices for many years.
The success also was a reprieve for Dow pioneer Charles Strosacher, who championed the styrene project as a means of using excess ethylene and had been with Dow since 1905. (He ended a 57-year career in 1962.) But that didn't stop a production superintendent, in the midst of the fiasco, from giving Strosacher a dressing-down: “You young whippersnappers certainly have a white elephant on your hands.”
In the early days of the business, wrote Brandt, PS was considered the “poor country cousin” to ethyl cellulose, since the latter material's organic feedstocks, such as wood pulp, were plentiful and cheap. Dow officials believed ethylene cellulose, as formulated by Dow chemist Edgar Britton, would become the world's largest-volume plastic. Dow even planted fast-growing hybrid aspen trees in the Midland area as a future source of cellulose. But those plantations were abandoned soon after, when the firm bought better land in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Northwood University, a private college with almost 2,000 students, stands on land once occupied by a Dow tree plantation.
Dow's ethylene cellulose, sold under the Ethocel name, also was a big wartime contributor. The U.S. military used the material in canteens, telephone headsets, control knobs, dust goggles and airplane parts. Ethylene cellulose also was sprayed on tents, sleeping bags and clothing to make them chemical- and water-resistant. Dow's Ethocel and other cellulosic resins later were largely replaced in the marketplace by stronger, longer-lasting materials.
The development of Dow's Saran-brand polyvinylidene chloride took a little longer. The material was discovered in 1933 by Dow chemist Ralph Wiley and first was called Eonite — after an indestructible material mentioned in the popular Little Orphan Annie comic strip.
PVDC wasn't commercialized until 1940, when furniture maker Heywood-Wakefield Co. used it as a replacement for rattan in the seating market. The company wanted a material that was less likely to snag men's pants or women's stockings. Around the same time, Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. wanted a material to cover rubber padding used to reduce noise on railway seats.
The combined demand — and the deadline of a pending Firestone ad campaign — led to a list of 10 five-letter names. The standard was that the word has no current meaning (in any language) and that it was easy to remember. A Firestone salesman chose the final name: Saran, which later was used in a top-selling plastic wrap.
Over the years, many Dow products were developed by putting teams of chemists in competition against each other on the same project. That attitude was still prevalent when Dow's current research and development director, Kurt Swogger, joined the firm in the early 1970s.
“Each division and each site was competing for resources,” he said recently by telephone. “The rivalry was very intense. You really fought it out to get to build a plant for your product.”
But that approach “didn't survive the 1980s,” Swogger said. “The general theory was that you get better results through competition, but today we can't afford to do that, because the business is so global,” he said. “We're trying to get back to the way we thought about things in the 1930s and 1940s,” Swogger said.
“There was a willingness to try something new. Everything wasn't regimented.”