"Doc, seems like there's no gas in this cylinder," said Jack Rebok, an assistant in a Du Pont lab deep in New Jersey. "The valve's open and nothing's coming out."
"Well, there's got to be. I weighed it," replied Roy J. Plunkett, a young chemist barely two years out of Ohio State. "Let's open it up."
The gas was some tetrafluoroethylene that Plunkett had cooked up in his search for a new refrigerator coolant. It was an obscure gas. Until then nobody had collected so much of it in one tank.
Inside the cylinder Plunkett found a white powder, slightly greasy to the touch. A lot of people would have cursed and thrown the stuff out and started looking for another cylinder. But Plunkett rubbed it between his fingers, sniffed it, tasted it, held it over a flame, dropped some acid on it. He was curious.
The date was April 6, 1938.
Yesterday, nearly 47 years later, Roy Plunkett was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame -- only the 59th member, alongside Edison, McCormick, Goodyear, the Wright brothers and a few other American legends.
For that white powder was Teflon, a material that today affects the lives of us all: in electronics, in medicine, in space, on cars and planes and bridges and rain suits and wires and body implants and frying pans and the Statue of Liberty.
What Plunkett had discovered, and Du Pont researchers later confirmed, was that Teflon was virtually inert: It resisted heat, electricity and most solvents, it was remarkably stable, it was the slipperiest substance on earth (like wet ice on wet ice) -- and it was expensive to make.
If it hadn't been for World War II, the whole thing might have stopped right there. But a few months later, scientists working on the first nuclear bomb needed some gaskets that would resist the viciously corrosive uranium hexafluoride used in producing U-235, the key ingredient of the bomb. For this project, cost didn't matter. Du Pont produced the powder secretly during the war. The public didn't learn about Teflon until 1946.
And it wasn't until Dec. 15, 1960, that the first Teflon-coated pots and pans went on sale, at Macy's in New York, for $6.94 each. They quickly sold out.
The public soon found that, tough as it was, Teflon could be abraded off a steel pan. There were stories of servants who got incensed at this brown stain and industriously scrubbed it away. Du Pont improved the bonding, resulting finally in Silverstone, the state-of-the-pot version.
Others took over the Teflon project, but Roy Plunkett worked 39 years for Du Pont, retiring 10 years ago to play golf and fish near his island home at Corpus Christi, Tex. He is 74. Oh yes, there were bonuses. But no percentage -- the business doesn't work that way. Rebok retired to his home in New Jersey.
"I was shocked when I heard about the Hall of Fame," Plunkett said when he pulled into town for the honor. "When I learned who else was in it, I was flabbergasted."
He can't get over the letters and calls he still gets from people who are alive today only because of a Teflon aorta or pacemaker. He is still trying to grasp the fact that, because of his curiosity, every soul on the planet is affected in some way, most of us daily.
Teflon was used for the outer skin of John Glenn's space suit. It is on the nose cone heat shields and flexible fuel tanks of space vehicles.
"When the astronauts went back to the moon and looked over stuff from the earlier expeditions," Plunkett said, "they found everything badly deteriorated from ultraviolet rays from the sun. Except the Teflon wire insulation."
Last summer the Army finally discovered Gore-Tex, a basic outdoor clothing fabric since 1977, valued because it is waterproof and windproof yet breathes. If the armed services order a million or more suits, Gore-Tex will be as big as denim.
And Gore-Tex is made of Teflon.
Because it is one of the few substances that the body doesn't reject, Teflon is used for: artificial corneas, substitute bones for chin, nose, skull, hip and knee joints, ear parts, artificial tracheas and heart valves and tendons, sutures, dentures and bile ducts.
Because it makes such long-wearing insulation, Teflon can be found everywhere in telecommunications equipment, electronics, miniature devices and everything from cables to printed circuits. The rollers that let huge bridges expand and contract with the weather are made of Teflon. Pipes, valves, seals and gaskets for handling all sorts of corrosive materials are Teflon. Of all the Du Pont products about which the public makes inquiries, Teflon is far and away the leader.
The company will hold a breakfast for the inventor tomorrow at the Four Seasons Hotel. Industrialists, medical researchers, architects, textile people and computer technicians will be there to talk about the wonderful white powder.
And even if every one of them orders eggs, the cook won't mind. Washing up will be no problem with those Teflon pans.