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CLICK TO ENLARGEAlthough Rohm and Haas made its big breakthrough with a leather-processing product, acrylics are what changed this small company into a major contender. Most people today are familiar with acrylic products, such as plastics and acrylic paints. In the early 20th century, however, acrylic chemistry was still a new field. It also happened to be Otto Röhm's area of expertise.

Röhm's earliest venture into acrylic products was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with automobile safety glass — two panes of glass with an acrylic layer in between to prevent shattering. Though the German and American branches of Rohm and Haas were now separate companies as a result of World War I, this did not stop the two Ottos from collaborating across the Atlantic. Haas knew Röhm was onto something with acrylics, and Röhm shared his research with Philadelphia.

Polymethyl Methacry-what?


The real breakthrough came in 1933. Röhm and his team had taken an interest in a particular derivative of acrylic acid called methyl methacrylate (MMA). While experimenting with polymerizing MMA (a monomer) between two sheets of glass to develop a better safety glass, Röhm inadvertently landed on something even better. Instead of acting like an adhesive between the panes of glass, this time the acrylic layer did not adhere. It separated from the glass, leaving a perfectly clear, solid sheet of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) - the very first cast acrylic plastic sheet.

Röhm and his team spent three years working on their discovery, which Röhm trademarked as Plexiglas. They investigated its properties and developed a process for mass production. Haas sent his people over to Darmstadt to learn, and he set up his own laboratory in Bristol, Pennsylvania, in 1934. A transatlantic acrylic collaboration began in earnest, and Plexiglas became commercially available in 1936.

Plexiglas “Takes Off” in Military Planes

CLICK TO ENLARGEAlmost immediately, Plexiglas found a market in military aircraft. Tough, shatterproof, wind- and weather-resistant, and with excellent optical properties, it was the ideal replacement for glass in bomber noses, canopies, and gun turrets. The Army and Navy Air Corps authorized the exclusive use of Plexiglas in the construction of its aircraft, leading to an intense collaboration between Rohm and Haas, the armed forces, and aircraft manufacturers.

With the arrival of World War II, U.S. aircraft production skyrocketed, and Plexiglas became an essential military product. Rohm and Haas rose to the challenge, increasing production dramatically.

CLICK TO ENLARGEThe company's efforts and vital contribution to the war by improving aircraft performance did not go unrecognized. In 1943, Rohm and Haas was honored with the Army-Navy Production Award, also known as the "E" Award, for excellence in war production.

The impact of Plexiglas on the growth of the company cannot be overstated. In 1936, sales from acrylic products were just $13,000. In 1937, after the introduction of Plexiglas, acrylic sales rose to $119,000. By 1941, they had reached $8.9 million.

Signs of the Times: Post-war Plexiglas

CLICK TO ENLARGEAs World War II ended, the demand for Plexiglas dropped dramatically. With production capacity high, sales were plummeting. Otto Haas knew he had to adapt Plexiglas to new markets.

With a combination of determined leadership, talented salesmen, and innovative scientists, the company eventually found new customers in manufacturers of signs, lighting fixtures, and automobiles, as well as in architects and railroad-car designers.

CLICK TO ENLARGEA big turn came when Plexiglas, originally prized for its transparency, met color. Initial attempts at colored Plexiglas, such as red taillights for cars, showed that the color faded from sun exposure. They needed to develop a light-stable dye. R&D; went to work with a specialty dye manufacturer and by 1946 had the solution, paving the way to the first major civilian market for Plexiglas illuminated signs.

With the capability to custom mold it into almost any shape, and now cast it in countless colors, Plexiglas became the ideal material for the illuminated signage that was rapidly appearing on the suburban American landscape.



   Our Story: Innovation : Plexiglas Triumphs

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