Rolf Dessauer

Born: November 3, 1926 | Nuremberg, DE

Rolf Dessauer was born in Nuremberg, Germany, one of two sons of a physician and a housewife. His family fled to the United States after Kristallnacht, eventually settling in Flushing, New York. After service in the U. S. Army, Dessauer received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Chicago, and a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin. Dessauer began his career at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, working at the Jackson Laboratory on dyes and UV-screening agents. He developed dyes for Alcoa's anodized aluminum, discovered a way to color Teflon, and taught dye chemistry to employees at DuPont's Ducilo plant in Buenos Aires. Although his inventions often met with resistance, his work on UV-screening agents was a commercial success.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0703
No. of pages: 109
Minutes: 329

Interview Sessions

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie and Hilary Domush
7 and 8 August, and 1 October 2012
Dessauer's Home Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

Rolf Dessauer was born in Nuremberg, Germany, one of two sons of a physician and a housewife. His family fled to the United States after Kristallnacht, eventually settling in Flushing, New York. After service in the US Army, Dessauer received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago, and a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin.

Dessauer began his career at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, working at the Jackson Laboratory on dyes and UV-screening agents. He developed dyes for Alcoa’s anodized aluminum, discovered a way to color Teflon, and taught dye chemistry to employees at DuPont’s Ducilo plant in Buenos Aires. Although his inventions often met with resistance, his work on UV-screening agents was a commercial success.

Reassigned to DuPont’s Experimental Station, Dessauer began work on photochromic materials, leading to imidazole derivatives, which formed stable colored free radicals on exposure to light. When mixed with leucodyes, these hexaarylbiimidazoles (nicknamed HABIs) produced colors. The project was called ultraviolet imaging (UVI) and it initially generated interdepartmental enthusiasm. By exposing a coated paper to ultraviolet light—or visible then UV light—one could form negative- or positive-mode images. Paper was coated on both sides; the product thus produced was named Dylux 503 proof paper and it found wide acceptance in the printing industry from 1969 to 2010. Additionally, HABIs were found to be useful in photoinitiating polymerization, leading to successful color proofing systems and a family of photoresists; under certain conditions, coatings containing HABIs promoted changes in adhesion.

Dessauer’s job then was to find other uses for HABIs. He developed photodecoration for leather and for furniture, early bar code labels, color cathode ray tubes, and an identification system for patients’ specimens at Georgetown University. Again, Dessauer had to fight for support for his projects. There are now at least eighteen hundred U.S. patents involving the HABI family, most of the first four hundred of them granted to DuPont.

Dessauer had been at DuPont for thirty-five years when DuPont and Xerox formed a new company, DX Imaging (DXI), to market newly invented photopolymer electrography. Dessauer left DuPont to work at DXI, but the company was closed down after three years. He became a consultant for DuPont, Xerox and a number of other companies, including Hewlett Packard, and this work resulted in another patent. Since then Dessauer has also written histories of his work—notably, Photochemistry, history and commercial applications of hexaarylbiimidazoles: all about HABIs, published by Elsevier—and he is writing an e-book about color. He also plans to write an entry for Wikipedia. Additionally, with his friend, the late Thomas Gravell, Dessauer made a study of watermarks of early postage stamps and documents, printing on Dylux 503. He and his wife, a long-time friend from Germany, visit Philadelphia often, exploring restaurants and theaters. He keeps up with the biimidazole literature and is still thinking about the unsolved problem of tackiness. He has contributed records of his work to the Hagley Museum and Library.

Dessauer bemoans the current lack of long-sightedness at DuPont; to him, the company seeks to commercialize products rapidly or lose interest in the technology. He points out that commercialization of Dylux technology took about eight years, and he feels that there were many projects that would have succeeded commercially with just a little more time and some support. He says that the policy of moving managers around frequently meant that people who did not fully understand the field made important policy decisions. Furthermore, important experience is being forgotten or discounted because of rapid technological changes. He does, however, name a number of “heroes” from DuPont, many of them friends for life. Dessauer believes that his main contribution is to have kept alive this chemistry, fighting for support in often-hostile environments. He points out that he was lucky to have good health, enough resources to get by, and a personality that led to a large network. Despite all his complaints, he had fun finding uses for dyes. Asked if he would do it all again, he says yes; in fact, he would go back to work right now, if he could.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1948 University of Chicago BA Chemistry
1949 University of Chicago MS Chemistry
1952 University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1952 to 1960
Research Chemist, Organic Chemicals Department
1960 to 1969
Senior Research Chemist, Organic Chemicals Department
1969 to 1978
Research Associate, Organic Chemicals Department
1978 to 1986
Research Associate, Photo Product Department, Photo and Electronics Department
1986
Senior Research Associate, Imaging System Department

DX Imaging

1987 to 1991
Subsystem Manager and Senior Research Associate
1991 to 2013
Consultant, Photoimaging Technology

Honors

Year(s) Award
2001

DuPont’s Pedersen Award for Development of Hexaarylbiimidazole Chemistry

2001

DuPont’s Plambeck Award for Contribution to Photopolymer Technology

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Early childhood in Nuremberg, Germany. Father, a physician, leaving Germany after Kristallnacht; Dessauer and mother leaving six months later, getting affidavits to remain in United States. Settling in Flushing, New York. Father receiving medical license. Dessauer excelling in school, liking chemistry. Recognition of two outstanding teachers. Meeting lifelong friend Edward Heubel at Flushing High School.

College and Army Years
8

Attempting to qualify for Army Specialized Training Reserve Program (ASTRP). Citizenship problems. Being granted citizenship and enlisting in the Army. Experiences at Virginia Military Institute, infantry basic training, Pennsylvania State College, Camp Crowder, Missouri, and the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Brother in military intelligence. Enrolling as a junior at University of Chicago. Obtaining bachelor's degree in five quarters, then master's degree. Impressions of the University's competitive atmosphere.

Graduate Studies
13

Beginning PhD program in organic chemistry at University of Wisconsin. Work on total synthesis of non-aromatic steroids with A. L. Wilds. Extracurricular activities in Madison, Wisconsin. Friendship with Robert C. Doban. Completing thesis and applying for jobs.

Beginning at E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company
21

Assignment to Jackson Laboratory to work on dyes. Being scooped by R. P. Linstead. Working down the hall from Charles J. Pedersen. Being mentored by Viktor Weinmayr. Experience with butanediol project. Assignment to "Developed Dyes Program" to find colorants that supplemented phthalocyanines. Dessauer being on probation when supervisor misrepresented his laboratory work. Subsequent work on improving lightfastness of Dacron dyes with ultraviolet light absorbers; introduction to photochemistry. Demonstrating experimentally that Teflon could be colored. Working on anodized aluminum with Alcoa Inc. Additional patents. Visiting Heubel at University of Buenos Aires; touring Ducilo plant and teaching dye chemistry to employees. Key researchers in U. S. Rubber Research Laboratory. Study of rubber vulcanization and of polymerization. Initiation of copolymerization mechanisms pursued by Mayo, Walling and Lewis.

Work on Ultraviolet Imaging at DuPont Experimental Station
34

Beginning work on Butacite project in Organic Chemistry Department. Lawrence A. Cescon joining the project. Focus on imidazole derivatives. Discovery of the long life and stability of imidazolyl radicals. W. R. Remington leaving the group, George R. Coraor and Ernest Silversmith joining. Reacting leucodyes with hexaarylbiimidazoles (HABIs), instantly yielding colors with exposure to ultraviolet light. T. M. Chilton selling ultraviolet imaging (UVI) program to upper management. General enthusiasm for UVI. Alexander Maclachlan analyzing mechanism of dye formation, contributing method of image stabilization. Coraor's dismissal. Attempts to work on the project with the Photo Products Department (PPD). Efforts to apply technology to optical printing and cathode ray tube imaging. Adding plasticizers to paper coating. Discovery of HABI photopolymerization capabilities. Challenges in establishing patent protection. Gunther Teufer's work to determine HABI structure. Formation of DuPont Ventures, success of UVI Venture. Additional cathode ray tube imaging possibilities, point of sales imaging. Consideration of product development with Mattel. Origin of trade name Dylux. Arrival of John Webb de Campi and William Wartel, refocusing on proofing market. Production of Dylux promotional film. Applications in shoe sizing. Dylux Venture moving to Photo Products Department.

Imagining More Projects
57

Forays into shoe and furniture leather photodecoration. Phillip Botsolas joining PPD marketing. Dylux applications in garment pattern cutting, Automatic Clinical Analyzer, and bar code printing. Difficulties in commercializing inventions. Selling Dylux to printers in St. Louis. Developing proper printing equipment and light filters for use with Dylux paper. Dessauer's transfer into PPD when departmental director retired. Receiving recognition for work on Dylux.

Retirement from DuPont
69

Leaving the Experimental Station to work at Dupont-Xerox venture, DX Imaging (DXI). Becoming a consultant when DXI closed down. Writing about HABIs, photochemistry, and color. Thomas Gravell's study of postage stamp watermarks, using Dylux 503 paper. Keeping up with the literature. Lecturing at Bowling Green State University.

General Reflections
75

Dye industry moving abroad, color chemistry disappearing from academia. Thoughts on the process of innovation, particularly at DuPont. Recognition of esteemed and influential co-workers. Elaboration on work at DXI. Reflections on good fortune. Donation of papers to Hagley Museum and Library.

Appendix 1: Video Interviews
90
Appendix 2: Dylux Images
96
Appendix 3: DuPont Environment
101
Appendix 4: Travels
103
Appendix 5: Acknowledgements
105
Index
106

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie earned a BA in history at the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in public history at Temple University. Her research has focused on the ways in which historical narratives are created, shaped, and presented to diverse groups. Before Sarah joined CHF, she was the Peregrine Arts Samuel S. Fels research intern and Hidden City project coordinator. Sarah worked both in the Center for Oral History and the Institute for Research at CHF and led projects that connected oral history and public history, producing a number of online exhibits that used oral histories, archival collections, and other materials. She also contributed to CHF’s Periodic Tabloid and Distillations.