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Obituaries

Waldo Semon; Chemist Developed Vinyl

June 01, 1999| From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Waldo Semon, a scientist who changed the way we live by developing vinyl, has died. Semon was 100 when he died Wednesday at a nursing home in Hudson, Ohio.

Semon held 116 U.S. patents and several dozen foreign patents in the area of rubber and plastics. In 1995, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

His discovery of practical applications for vinyl came about somewhat by accident. As a chemist for B.F. Goodrich in the mid-1920s, he had been assigned to make an adhesive to preserve rubber.

While working on that project, he began trying to dissolve an undesirable material called polyvinyl chloride to see if it would work as an adhesive.

"People thought PVC was worthless back then," Semon recalled when he was inducted into the hall of fame. "They'd throw it in the trash."

But by heating PVC in a solvent at a high boiling point, Semon discovered something he wasn't looking for--a substance that was flexible and elastic.

In an interview with National Public Radio some years ago, he recalled how it occurred to him that polyvinyl chloride could be applied to fabric.

"My wife had been making curtains for the living room," he said. "I brought some of the fabric into the laboratory and coated it with PVC, and lo and behold, it looked like silk and it was waterproof. . . . I became so enthusiastic . . . I forgot about protocol and went directly to the vice president of sales, and he looked at it and he says, 'Hell, what do you mean, waterproof?' So I grabbed the fabric and put it on top of his incoming mail and took a decanter of water and poured it. Oh, he was really frightened, but it didn't leak. . . . I've often wondered what would have happened to me or to PVC if it had leaked."

At first, B.F. Goodrich didn't know what to do with Semon's discovery and shelved it. But by the early 1930s, Semon had convinced his employers of the possibilities, and they began marketing it under the trade name Korseal.

Vinyl coated products, such as umbrellas, raincoats and shower curtains, started popping up on store shelves nationwide. Vinyl went on to be used to make products such as phonograph records, garden hoses and garment bags. The new car smell in automobiles comes from the use of vinyl in the interiors.

Today, vinyl is the second most used plastic, after polyethylene, which is widely used in packaging. Vinyl constitutes a $20 billion a year industry worldwide. Nearly 50 billion pounds are produced annually.

Waldo Lonsbury Semon was born in Demopolis, Ala., on Sept. 10, 1898. His father, Frank Emerson Semon, was a civil engineer whose profession kept him moving. Waldo Semon spent much of his early life in Washington and Oregon, eventually entering the University of Washington determined to become a chemist.

Semon's 37-year career with B.F. Goodrich in Akron, Ohio, started in 1926, three years after he received his doctorate from Washington. Semon signed on with Goodrich after deciding that he couldn't support his wife and two daughters on the $1,800-a-year salary he earned as a chemistry instructor at the university.

Semon decided to drive his family east from Seattle and bought a used 1918 Ford touring car to make the trip. Two weeks and 14 flat tires later, Semon arrived in Akron.

After his retirement from Goodrich in the early 1960s, he did consulting work for the firm and joined Kent State University as a research professor. In his interview with NPR, he was asked if the development of PVC had made him a rich man.

"No, I got $1 for the patent," he replied.

He is survived by two daughters, Connie Stelson of Atlanta and Beth Pake of Los Altos, Calif., and several grandchildren.

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