Nathaniel Wyeth (1911-1990) is the American inventor who gave the world the plastic Coke bottle. That was in the 1970s. Before then Coke and other soft drinks came in glass bottles, which you can still see in some places, like Greece.
Plastic is lighter and does not break or burst easily. But, of course, it does not easily return to the earth: while most of the stuff we produce can only last for up to 500 years, a plastic bottle can last for a million years! Yes. Thus recycling. The plastic bottles of New York in the landfills of Staten Island will long outlast its buildings.
Wyeth started working on how to make a plastic bottle at DuPont in 1967. It took him three years to get something that worked. At first he tried using the plastic that washing machine soap is sold in. That swells up: it is not strong enough for a soft drink, which has to be stored in a pressurized form or it will taste flat. In time he found that polyethylene terephthalate was the right sort of plastic, now also known as PET or Plastic #1.
In addition to the right kind of plastic, he was the first one to discover two tricks: he worked out how to blow the bottle and fill it in one step and, later in the 1970s, how to make the bottle in one piece, not two.
His American patent is number 3,733,309: “Biaxially Oriented Poly(ethy.ene terephthalate) Bottle”. He applied for it in 1970, it was issued on May 15th 1973.
He has other inventions too, finding ways to use plastic where metal or glass or other things were once used. Because of him cars are now partly made out of plastic!
He worked by trial and error, never giving up. His early plastic bottles looked terrible, but he said, “If I hadn’t used those mistakes as stepping stones, I would have never invented anything.” By finding out what did not work, he could find out what did.
Whenever he came up with an idea, however strange, he wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it in a box. Every now and then he would empty the box and read through them. (That is what gave me the idea for the Suggestions page on this blog!).
Wyeth got a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and went to work for General Motors, where his uncle worked. In 1936 he came to DuPont. He worked his way up the engineering ranks and by 1963 he became its first Engineering Fellow, which meant he could work on whatever he liked. In 1976 he retired.
Wyeth grew up west of Philadelphia in a family of artists and painters. But from an early age he showed a love of machines not art, taking apart clocks to make other things.
If the name Wyeth sounds familiar that is because of Nathaniel’s far more famous brother, the painter Andrew Wyeth, who gave us “Christina’s World” in 1948, one of the most famous American paintings ever.
- The National Geographic’s green guide for plastics #1-#7 – a PDF, but cool. Some say PET (Plastic #1) is dangerous to drink out of if it is heated, cooled or reused – phthalates get into your drink – but the National Geographic says it is safe.
- high fructose corn syrup
- printing press
- Suggestions – the idea for this page came to me from Wyeth.