Edgar W. Spanagel

Born: July 25, 1905 | LeRoy, WI, US
Died: November 3, 2004 | Wilmington, DE, US

This interview describes Dr. Edgar W. Spanagel's life, focusing on his contributions to nylon research at the DuPont Company. Spanagel grew up in Wisconsin and attended Lawrence College. Spanagel secured a scholarship to McGill University, where he worked under Charles F. H. Allen. Spanagel, completed his PhD in 1933. He accepted a position as a DuPont Research Chemist in Wallace Carothers' polymer group. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0158
No. of pages: 27
Minutes: 103

Interview Sessions

John Kenly Smith, Jr.
9 May 1997
Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

This interview describes Dr. Edgar W. Spanagel's life, focusing on his contributions to nylon research at the DuPont Company.  Spanagel was born on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, attended small schoolhouses, and graduated as salutatorian from Waupun High School in 1924. Although his father died when he was fourteen, leaving his mother alone with four children, Spanagel was able to save enough from after-school jobs to fund his first year of study at Lawrence College.  At Lawrence, he took his first chemistry class and, after a successful semester, decided upon a chemistry major. Supporting himself with various jobs at night and in the summers, Spanagel completed college in four years and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  He accepted a job teaching chemistry labs at Lawrence for two years and then applied for scholarships to graduate school.  With the help of Stephen Darling, an organic chemistry professor at Lawrence, Spanagel secured a scholarship to McGill University, where he worked under Darling's former colleague, Charles F. H. Allen.  Spanagel completed his dissertation on anhydroacetone benzil in 1933.   At that point, Allen contacted Wallace Carothers, whom he had known at Harvard University, and Spanagel was interviewed at DuPont. He accepted a position as Research Chemist in Carothers' research group and began work on large ring compounds, first for use in perfumes and then making polymer.  In 1934, Donald Coffman made polymer from aminocaproic acid, and soon, the research group focused on polyamide preparation and 66 polyamide.  Spanagel worked with 66 salt, discovered by Wesley R. Peterson, and eventually introduced autoclaves to prevent the loss of diamine and maintain high molecular weights in polyamide production.  To prevent discoloration of polymer, the group used silver-lined and then stainless steel autoclaves.  After production was scaled up, Spanagel was moved to the semiworks for several months, solving equipment problems before returning to the research laboratory to develop a yarn size for use with full fashion knitting machines to produce women's stockings.  His development of a boric-modified size for yarn was essential to stocking production at the Seaford nylon plant, where Spanagel later moved as plant technical superintendent.  The latter part of his career was spent in management positions dealing primarily with nylon, cellophane and Mylar film.  In the interview's closing section, Spanagel discusses his relationships with supervisors, Carothers and George Graves, colleague Paul Flory, and his views on research vs. management careers.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1928 Lawrence College BA Chemistry
1933 McGill University PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Lawrence College

1928 to 1930
Chemistry Instructor

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1933 to 1941
Research Chemist, Experimental Station
1941 to 1943
Technical Superintendent, Nylon Plant
1943 to 1947
Research Manager, Nylon Research Lab
1947 to 1950
Assistant Director, Cellophane Research
1950 to 1958
Assistant Director of Production, Film Department
1958 to 1965
Director of Manufacturing
1942 to 1944

Table of Contents

Family and childhood

Childhood on dairy farm near Horicon Marsh, education in schoolhouses there and in Waupun, Wisconsin. High school experience and work saving for college.

College and Graduate School

Early experience in chemistry at Lawrence College. Election to Phi Beta Kappa, graduation, and teaching college chemistry labs. Influence of Stephen Darling and scholarship to McGill University. Dissertation research on anhydroacetone benzil under guidance of Charles F. H. Allen. Allen's relationship with Wallace Carothers. Interviewing and accepting job at DuPont. Social conditions during school years and at time of graduation.

Early Research Career at DuPont

First day at DuPont and research making large-ring compounds for use in manufacturing perfumes. Atmosphere and work organization in Carothers' group. Later work on large rings and use of catalysts to make 17-member rings. Observing Donald Coffman making polymer from aminocaproic acid. Work focusing on polyamides and decision to concentrate on 66 polyamide, made from benzene. Wesley R. Peterson's discovery of 66 salt and subsequent work to develop fiber with high enough molecular weight. Use of autoclave to prevent loss of diamine and subsequent success in making polymer. Scaling up and assignment to run semiworks. Return to research laboratory and assignment to size the yarn for full fashion knitting machine. Eventual finding of boric-acid modified size for yarn.

Impressions of Nylon Research Group

Relationships with Carothers and George Graves. Modern Pioneers celebration highlighting nylon. Comments on general work atmosphere.

Management Career at DuPont

Promotion to plant technical superintendent at Seaford nylon plant. Addressing problems in operations and materials testing. Promotions through various management positions. Views on supervising vs. conducting research. Relationship with Paul Flory.


About the Interviewer

John Kenly Smith, Jr.

John Kenly Smith, Jr., is an associate professor of history at Lehigh University, where he has been a faculty member since 1987. He coauthored Science and Corporate Strategy: DuPont R&D, 1902–1980, published in 1988. He served with the DuPont R&D History Project from 1982 to 1986 and was Newcomen Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School from 1986 to 1987. He received the Newcomen Prize in Business History for Best Book Published in America and is on the editorial board of American Chemical Society Books.