Celebrating the invention of Vaseline

It is today, 135 years ago on 14 May 1878, that the Vaseline trademark was registered for the petroleum jelly product developed almost a decade earlier by English chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough.

Chesebrough initially went to Titusville Pa in the USA during the petroleum boom, and became interested in a paste-like residue that clogged the pumps of the oil drillers. Although a rough and unrefined paste, local oil workers had already started using it on burns to promote healing. Chesebrough started experimenting with different ways of extracting and purifying the paste, eventually finding an effective way of manufacturing the petroleum jelly which he called ‘Vaseline’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “the name is of mixed origin, being derived from Wasser, water, and elaion [Greek in the original], oil (water-oil), and indicates the belief of the discoverer that petroleum, the mother of Vaseline, is produced by the agency of heat and pressure from the carbon of certain rocks, and the hydrogen of water.”

Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline. (© All Rights Reserved)
Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline.
(© All Rights Reserved)

He patented it on 4 June 1872. Realising the potential of the product, he began selling it through his Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. Vaseline continued to be made and sold by Chesebrough’s company for more than a century, until the company was purchased by Unilever in 1987.

It is quite amazing, when you think about the fact that Vaseline started out as an unwanted byproduct of the oil drilling process, what an incredibly useful and versatile product it turned out to be. Not only is it a great moisturiser, working wonders on dry lips, tired eyes and chapped skin (esp hands, heels and elbows), but it also makes a great exfoliating body rub, when mixed with sea salt. From a medicinal point of view, it can sooth and protect burns, grazes, cuts and sensitive shaved skin (or even new tattoos!).

For the DIY types, Vaseline is great to keep screw-in light bulbs or bottle lids from sticking, to sort out a squeaky hinge or to loosen a stiff bike chain. It can also be used to remove watermarks from wood, or lipstick stains from napkins and clothing. It’s even useful as emergency shoe-shine. Oh, and here’s one you may not have heard – when you carve up a Halloween pumpkin, you can rub Vaseline on the exposed cuts on the pumpkin to keep it from rotting or drying out!

And you may know the story of how Vaseline can be used for sex: simply apply it to the bedroom doorknob – it works great to keep the kids out. 🙂

So here’s to Robert Chesebrough and his Vaseline – lubricating the world since 1878.

Teflon, the accidentally discovered super polymer

It was on this day in 1938 that Roy J Plunkett and his technician Jack Rebok, employees at Kinetic Chemicals, accidentally discovered Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, aka PTFE).

Plunkett was working on new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants when the gas in one bottle appeared to be finished, even though the bottle still weighed the same as full bottles. Curious about this, the container was sawn open, and instead of gas, Plunkett & Rebok discovered a slippery, waxy white powder. This was found to be polymerised perfluoroethylene, and further analysis showed the material had some rather unique properties – it was highly hydrophobic, had one of the lowest friction coefficients of any known solid, and was chemically inert with a very high melting point.

Realising they had something special on their hands, the material was patented by DuPont, founding owners of Kinetic Chemicals, and the trademark Teflon was registered in 1945.

Teflon - the super-polymer known by most as a non-stick coating in pots and pans.(© All Rights Reserved)
Teflon – the super-polymer known by most as a non-stick coating in pots and pans.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Its unique properties has resulted in Teflon finding application in a range of highly disparate domains. Its unusually low friction coefficient means that it is an excellent lubricant in applications requiring dry lubrication, reducing friction, wear and energy consumption in the machinery where it is used. Its chemical inertness makes it an excellent coating material in valves, seals and pipes carrying highly reactive and corrosive chemicals. Its hydrophobic qualities has resulted in it being incorporated as a membrane in Gore-Tex, a popular, breathable waterproofing material. It has been used in thread seal tape, applied to the feet of computer mice, as a coating for bullets and as a highly effective air filtration membrane, among many other applications.

And we all know how pervasive it has become as a non-stick coating for cooking pots and pans, thanks to its hydrophobic properties. Interestingly, the first pans using non-stick Teflon coating, the Tefal range, were developed in 1954 by a French engineer Marc Gregoire, who developed the cookware coating at the recommendation of his wife Collete, who saw him use it on his fishing tackle. (In some countries Tefal is marketed as T-Fal as a result of DuPont’s insistence that ‘Tefal’ sounded too similar to ‘Teflon’.)

It’s probably safe to say that Teflon is one of the most diversely applied modern materials – not bad for a polymer discovered by accident!