John Rex Whinfield invented terylene, a synthetic polyester fiber that is equal to or surpasses nylon in toughness and resilience, and has become used universally as a textile fiber. The invention of terylene, also known as Dacron, was the culmination of many years of study and reasoning about the molecular structure and physical and chemical properties of polymers. Whinfield's major inventive work on terylene was carried out aside from his primary research in the small laboratory of a company that had little or no interest in research on fibers. He spent his life working as an industrial research chemist and eventually became director of the fibers division of Imperial Chemical Industries. Recognition for his work came in the later years of his life.
Whinfield was born February 16, 1901, in Sutton, Surrey, England, to John Henry Richard Whinfield, a mechanical engineer, and Edith Matthews Whinfield. As a boy, Whinfield showed an early interest in science and chemistry. He was educated at Merchants Taylors' School and Caius College of Cambridge, reading in natural sciences (1921) and chemistry (1922). In 1922 he married Mayo Walker, the daughter of the Rev. Frederick William Walker. She died in 1946, and in 1947 he married Nora Hodder of Worthing.
Whinfield was interested in the molecular makeup and properties of synthetic fibers, and to gain experience in fibers after graduating, he worked for a year without pay in the London laboratory of C. F. Cross and E. J. Bevan, who in 1892 had invented the "viscose reaction" for the production of rayon. In 1924, Whinfield was employed by the Calico Printers' Association as a research chemist, where he worked primarily on the chemistry of fabric dyeing and finishing. He continued his studies of the physical and chemical properties of synthetic fibers, however, and followed with interest the work of Wallace Hume Carothers in the United States, who in 1928 published the first of a long series of papers on condensation polymerization reactions. Carothers' work led to the invention of nylon, a polyamide; he had worked on but rejected the polyester group as a source of synthetic textile fibers because he thought the melting points were too low.
Whinfield's studies and rough analogies led him to believe that a polyester might work, specifically a polyester made from terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. The latter chemical was available commercially, but terephthalic acid had been produced only in small quantities. Whinfield pressed his company to try some fiber work; in 1940 he was finally able to devote some time to the fiber research he had been thinking about, and in March 1941 he and his assistant, James T. Dickson, discovered a method of condensing terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol to produce a compound that could be drawn into fibers. Empirical work demonstrated--happily, because this had not been predictable from theoretical word--that the fibers had a high melting point and were resistant to hydrolytic breakdown. Whinfield and Dickson filed their patent on terylene in July 1941. Britain was engaged in World War II at the time, and terylene's potential utility for the war industry was examined briefly by the Ministry of Supply, for whom Whinfield had come to work during the war. It was known to be an important invention, but production was not thought to be practicable for the war effort, and registration of the patent was delayed until 1946, after the war.
The Calico Printers' Association decided not to develop terylene, and consequently sold their rights to the product to Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), who obtained world manufacturing rights. Whinfield went to work for ICI in 1947. Du Pont in the United States independently prepared terylene and purchased the U.S. patent application filed by the British in 1946. Although Du Pont had been working on terylene, there was no question of the priority of its invention. Du Pont first called it "Fiber V," then "Dacron," and began full-scale production in the United States in 1953. ICI, after operating two pilot plants for several years, began commercial production of terylene fibers in 1955.
In the production of terylene, dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol, derived from coal, air, water, and petroleum, are polymerized. Then the substance is "melt spun" into filaments. The filaments are stable, but springy; Whinfield found that the fibers would stretch to 10-25% of their original length before rupturing. Terylene was shown to be equal to nylon in its potential usefulness, and it contributed greatly to the popularity of "wash and wear" clothing.
At ICI, Whinfield worked first in the Fibers Development Department of the plastics division with W. F. Osborne, then in the Fibers Division, where he eventually became director. In 1954, he received a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) for his work on terylene. The same year, he was engaged to advise on Point of Departure, an educational film on manmade fibers made by the Film Producers Guild. He was a clear explicator, but somewhat unexpectedly, he also proved to be an accomplished actor, and as a result played a leading role in the film. In 1955, he was elected an honorary fellow of the Textile Institute, and in 1956 he received the Perkin medal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists. During his tenure at ICI, Whinfield traveled widely, including to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a guest of the Russian government. He retired in 1963. In 1965, the University of York named its chemical library and a number of traveling fellowships after Whinfield.
Whinfield died on July 6, 1966, at Dorking, at age 65. In an obituary published in Chemistry in Britain (1967), P. C. Allen wrote, "[He] remained until the end of his life an essentially modest and simple man. He had a host of friends and no wonder for no one could be more charming companion, or when he was in the mood, a better talker. He wrote very clearly also; his publications are a model of clarity."
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