- Nylon and Bombs: DuPont and the March of Modern America
Pap A. Ndiaye's fascinating book traces the creation, rise, and fall of the chemical engineer in American society over the course of the twentieth century through the eyes of DuPont. By linking nylon to atomic bombs, two icons of American ingenuity, he demonstrates the intricate ties between the military and civilian society. Three characteristics unite the two seemingly disparate artifacts of Ndiaye's title. First, and most obviously, these objects perhaps more than any others have come to symbolize the twentieth century as a modernist adventure and playground for technologists and technocrats. Nylon, the synthetic creation that conquered the social world by demonstrating its superiority over its natural rivals, sits adjacent to the atomic bomb, the embodiment of our society's ability to harness and break apart nature's most fundamental structures. Side by side, the two reveal our ability to control all that nature has, and to outsmart it as well.
Bombs and nylon also emerge as products uniquely shaped by a new class of engineers—the chemical engineers. The need to mass produce nylon and bombs offered them generally, and more specifically those at DuPont, an opportunity to position themselves as engineers of the modern era. Chemists and physicists found themselves left to the laboratories while the engineers constructed the institutions—material and organizational—to supply the vast quantities demanded by consumers.
Last, nylon and bombs are both products of new sources of wealth coupled with the rise of consumerism in the United States. As Ndiaye spells out in the book, new cash flows that emerged during and after World War II did not go away once the war ended. The long cold war ensured continued funding for the construction of a permanent military-industrial complex, especially geared toward the production of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, economic growth in the United States meant more people spending more money on everyday items, particularly those not available during the war, such as nylon. The rise of consumerism, as Ndiaye points out, characterizes both the government and the civilian population. And yet, though separate, [End Page 493] they are not distinct. Again, it was DuPont's ability to ably manage mass production of tremendous volumes of chemicals that made both the rise of nylon and of nuclear weapons possible.
What Ndiaye has done is pull together as best as possible the micro, meso, and macro creation stories of the last century. If the story is told only from the perspective of the engineers, the reader loses sight of the political wrangling that took place between DuPont (the company and the family) and the federal government as well as the more general rise of the consumer culture. If the story is told from the perspective of the political landscape, one misses exactly how this strange new breed of engineer emerged from obscurity to become one of the most profitable and powerful classes of engineer in America. And if it is told only from the perspective of the rise of consumerism, one misses the ways in which nylon and the bomb are born together from a technical and political culture unique to the mid-twentieth century.
But then Ndiaye's story takes a strange turn. Under pressure from mounting environmental concerns, a return to the "natural" fibers of the world, and a decrease in cash flow as the cold war tapered off, chemical engineers began their fall from grace. This, Ndiaye claims, is one mark of the end of the modernist project in America. While it may be safe to say that chemical engineers do not hold the positions of prominence and public support they once did, this supposition needs to be unpacked. The recent "essential2" advertising campaign by the American Chemistry Council speaks directly to this point, indicating that Ndiaye is correct in his diagnosis of public skepticism, but perhaps overstepping the evidence when it comes to the continued construction of our synthetic planet. Understanding exactly how chemical engineers...