Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Engineer's Art

The black-sheep engineer in a family of artists contained carbonation in plastic.

Many families have a black sheep, someone who takes off on his or her own path rather than following family tradition. But few black sheep make as enduring-if a tad mundane-a contribution to society as Nathaniel Wyeth did with his invention of the plastic soda bottle.

Born into what many critics consider America’s foremost artistic family, Nathaniel Wyeth-named at birth Newell Convers Wyeth after his famous father-showed an early aptitude for engineering. In fact, his technical bent was so obvious almost from the start that at the age of three he was renamed after the senior N.C.’s brother Nathaniel, an engineer. While the rest of the Wyeth kids-younger brother Andrew and three sisters-went into art or music, Nathaniel studied engineering.

Wyeth spent most of his career at DuPont, working on various mechanical devices. One day in 1967, he wondered out loud why plastic wasn’t used for soda bottles. A colleague replied that plastic wasn’t strong enough; the carbonation would make the bottles expand and explode. Ever the tinkerer, Wyeth went out and bought a plastic bottle of detergent. He took it home, replaced the soap with ginger ale and left the bottle in the refrigerator. Sure enough, the container ballooned overnight and lodged itself tightly between the refrigerator shelves. So Wyeth began his quest to develop a plastic strong enough to keep carbonated beverages in check.

This story is part of our January/February 2002 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

He knew that stretching nylon threads actually strengthens them, since it forces their molecules to align; to fortify plastic for bottles, however, he needed to line the molecules up in two dimensions rather than just one. His solution was a mold that resembled a test tube with screw threads-but the threads crisscrossed one another rather than running in a single spiral. When he pushed polypropylene through the mold, its molecules lined up in two dimensions, making the plastic strong enough to hold soda without deforming. But only after experimenting with thousands of polymers did Wyeth (above left) find one that gave him clear, light bottles and contained the carbonation without expanding.

In 1973, Wyeth filed for a patent on polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, soda bottles. Today billions of the bottles are produced each year in the United States, and they have become one of the most recycled household products. Polyester from recycled PET bottles goes into carpets, fabric, insulation and stuffing for furniture and sleeping bags.

Learn today what the rest of the world won’t know until tomorrow, at Business of Blockchain 2019.

Register now
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to MIT Technology Review.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivered daily

  • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    The Download: newsletter delivered daily

  • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    The Download: newsletter delivered daily

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.