Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, May 1947: Silicone Sally, Or, Was It Getting Hot In Here?

Silicone. It's hot. (Where's my eyeroll emoji?)
Kingpro non-stick utility frying pan, because Teflon.
Now that we've got that out of the way. . .You  have to feel for Frederick Kipping

I am pretty confident that when he coined the name "silicone," in 1901, he did not have Japanese sex dolls, personal lubricants or cosmetic implants in mind. And yet here we are, because it turns out that organosilicones are ideal for those applications, and no-one cares about the other stuff. I mean, industrial lubricants. Bo-ring. The exceptions here are Teflon and Freon, because we've heard of those.

If you read the extant literature, Kipping's hard to placec. Here he is, in 1906, describing the silicones and their chemistry, and, in general, to all appearances ready to launch a chemical industrial revolution. And then . . nothing for fifty years. It turns out that he shouldn't even get credit for "inventing" organosilicones, which were first synthesised by Charles Friedel and James Craft, more than a generation before. It's not like he invented a cost-effective synthesis, because even without being able to read his paper, you know that no-one made silicones until postwar America. Apart from Corning's experiments with (silicone rubber), the invention of Teflon at Dow in 1938, and Frigidaire/GM's pioneering of Freon in the 1920s, there's just nothing. Sure, Fortune describes American naval searchlight gaskets as an application of silicone rubber, and other navies have searchlights took, so you have to wonder. But. . .  

Fortunately, even if Google Books is down to reluctantly providing snippet views of Hansards, Google can't quite bring itself to whether the embarrassment of suppressing Books entirely, much as it would probably like to at this point.

"Do no Evil"
That means that you can do your own date-limited search for "silicone" and discover the wonder of pre-WWII silicone products. Did you know that W. E. Riddle and J. D. Wheat, D.[sic] V. M., were injecting horses' joints with "silicone grease" in 1915? I mean, heck, it's not like horses can sue. It seems that there's a gigantic article in my grandfather's edition of the Britannica on industrial silicones, but it's unfortunately a good long drive and a very expensive ferry ride away, (God only knows what has happened to the various library copies in the city.) The point is that, tedious logistics aside, we're stuck with snippet view and worse. Even more unsatisfactory is the fact that we're clearly getting a streamlined view of the history of the silicone plastics. The Journal of Chemical Industry [1909] cites a different worker, Woehler, as being the first to synthesise silicone; and my venerable copy of Miall's New Dictionary of Chemistry, inherited from the late Stephen Straker, does not recognise the vulgar "silicone" at all. preferring to talk about "silicon hydrides." (Which are themselves only the precursors of industrially useful rubbers and oils.) 

At least it turns out that Questions Were Raised in Parliament about silicone breast implants in 1935.* It's an improvement on the Wikipedia version of the history of the breast implant! That refers, vaguely, to the first half of the Twentieth Century before rushing on in relief to "Morton I. Berson, in 1945, and Jacques Maliniac, in 1950." Breast augmentation surgery is an even more gauche branch of history than home permanents, but at least some of the surgeons involved were Heroic Workers who pioneered Dramatic New Surgical Techniques. More relevant to matters of high seriousness is a bit in Flight from 1909 that Google can find but not the search function at the Flight International site. (Google being very good at what it makes money at.) Thanks to it, I know that Precision Rubber, Ltd. later Dunlop Precision Rubber, Ltd, was working away on silicone rubbers that were expected to be superior for aircraft applications at high altitude.

After almost a century, Dunlop abandoned the Precision Rubber plant in 2005. Picture courtesy of nsdev. Have I mentioned that I have a theory about the Brexit vote?


This is the Boeing B-17C, of which twenty were provided to the RAF by the United States in 1941. Eight were lost in action in short order, and the remainder pulled from the line and turned over to Transport Command and (less happily) Coastal Command. An important factor in the failure was freezing lubricants, but one could extend it to rubbers that became fragile at stratospheric temperatures and even rubber O-rings swelling on contact with natural lubricants. As a result of completely neglecting all of this, the American air forces spent 1941 struggling with all of the problems that Precision Rubber, Ltd, was engineering against in 1909. The tone in the USAAF official history is along the lines of, "We did our flying in California, so how could we have known this would happen?"

A winter morning in Dayton, Ohio, home of Wright Field.

I'm not going to dwell on this further --I think we can all agree that Audit of War is a very ignorant book, and the easily overlooked crux of the matter is that Congress spent more than enough on defence in the 1930s to win the war in the 1940s. Funding Wright Field research into silicone rubbers would have helped win the war more, but is that really the argument you want to take to the taxpayer? (Unless you are somehow converted to the idea that stimulatory spending, on defence, if necessary, is a good antidote to secular stagnation. And we're talking about Congress here.)

I see the history of Teflon's head, insouciantly bobbing down wind --I suspect that that means that it is close to its hole, and that any attempt to chase down it down will take me places. (It looks as though a full accounting for Teflon is going to lead through the use of thin films in optics to semiconductors, and who has time for that?) So I'm going to close with Freon, instead, because the refrigeration industry is legitimately important. Or Freon-12B1, to be precise: "Bromochlorodifluoromethane, also known by the trade name Halon 1211, or BCF, or Halon 1211 BCF, or Freon 12B1." The claim that the exigencies of patent law obscure the real history of technology --and of American dependence on prewar, state-driven, defence-related European research-- is at least as shopworn in these parts as dumping on Correlli Barnett's thesis that the technological history of WWII shows that American weapons were better than British because of America's higher level of technical efficiency. 

This is still a pretty blatant, though. The Wiki history is, again, pretty vague, but at least it recognises that brominated haloalkanes were used in fire extinguishers "during WWII." Per the tortuous process through which the chlorofluorocarbons, first synthesised by the Belgian worked, Frederic Swarts, in  came to be patented by Charles Kettering, issued by him to Frigidaire (a GM subsidiary) and then to Kinetic Chemicals, a GM/DuPont joint venture that was vested with Teflon by its other parent, British "methyl bromide" is known as "Freon" in the United States. This does not change the fact that methyl bromide fire extinguishers were in use in the RAF by 1931. No reference to patents appears, but methyl bromide was specified by the Air Ministry, and first appears in the literature as a potential fire extinguisher fluid in 1923 (and as a sometimes toxic dye industry reagent from 1899).  Various difficulties evidently kept it out of American service "until WWII" as we like to say.

Again, not to bury the point, but this has been an example of a major field of industrial research in which American patent trolls stole public-sector European research and attributed it to Heroic Inventors and the corporate research laboratories of the Golden Age of American private science. (Because free enterprise, and the forward-looking, innovative American culture.) Did you notice that I got a swipe in at Google Labs along the way?
Hey, Google. Is there a disputed copyright claim to the 1906 number of Proceedings of Industrial Chemistry?

*(Hansard, 4th Session, 29th Parliament ((1935)); This is the snippet view of Hansards that I just referred to now. Come on, Google.


  1. The whole of Hansard has been online for years so I have no idea why you'd use Google Books for it.


  2. The short answer is that Google Books is a great way of doing a period-limited literature search. Notice that it turned up an article in the Flightglobal archives that the archive's own search function couldn't turn up.

    The long answer is that this is the drawback to doing social commentary as snide asides. Google likes to think of itself as a new Bell Labs, always on the verge of a new semi-conductor revolution. But it turns out that the semiconductor revolution was driven by the Air Force, not brilliant scientists at an industrial lab.

    Google's history is littered with honest attempts to launch the next Age of Moore; and when I say "littered," I mean that it tries out a cool idea and then abandons it (more-or-less; Google Books is still useful for some things, and there's probably someone out there working with Google Glass. Too bad about iGoogle and Google Reader and so on). I'm not pointing this out to be hurtful, just to point to the limits of techbro libertarian utopianism. There's a reason that we institutionalise instititutions!

    Also, at least in an ideal world, failures like Google Books would be acknowledged. we would learn our lesson, and we would be skeptical of the next effort to dismantle existing utility (for example, physical libraries) in the name of as-yet to be realised online utopias.