As I was saying in my last article, the one about the invention of adhesive tape, I recently bought a house and it’s in need of renovation (more and more as I realized, sadly).
This week, I tore up Styrofoam from the kitchen ceiling—apparently put here for insulation, even if it’s a serious fire hazard the way it was installed. It was not clean work, the glue used mostly ruined the ceiling. But it’s not the subject of the day. This experience led me to the usual question:
Who Invented Styrofoam?
First of all, before even going into the definition of “Styrofoam,” it is necessary to say that this is not the name of the product, but the name of a brand of polystyrene foam. So, what is polystyrene foam?
According to chemicalsafetyfacts.org:
“Polystyrene is a versatile plastic used to make a wide variety of consumer products. As a hard, solid plastic, it is often used in products that require clarity, such as food packaging and laboratory ware. When combined with various colorants, additives, or other plastics, polystyrene is used to make appliances, electronics, automobile parts, toys, gardening pots and equipment, and more.
Polystyrene is also made into a foam material, called expanded polystyrene (EPS) or extruded polystyrene (XPS), which is valued for its insulating and cushioning properties. Foam polystyrene can be more than 95 percent air and is widely used to make home and appliance insulation, lightweight protective packaging, surfboards, food service and food packaging, automobile parts, roadways, and roads bank stabilization systems, and more.”
Styrofoam is a brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) manufactured as foam continuous building insulation board used in walls, roofs, and foundations as thermal insulation and water barrier.
Weirdly, Styrofoam is blue, but the name is used worldwide to refer to another material that is usually white and made of expanded (not extruded) polystyrene foam (EPS). In fact, it’s this white product that I had in my kitchen. In fact, here in France, we just call that “polystyrene.”
So yes, “styrofoam cup” is not a real thing, because Styrofoam is not used to make cups, but expanded polystyrene is.
An Accidental Invention during War Time
The person who invented foam polystyrene is Otis Ray McIntire. An American born in 1918, he was 22 when he graduated from the University of Kansas in chemical engineering in 1940 and got a job with Dow Chemical Company.
A year later, in 1941, because of the Second World War, Rubber was in short supply and McIntire was working on a substitute. More precisely, he was searching to design a flexible electrical insulator. It was by mixing styrene with isobutylene that he inadvertently created foam polystyrene that was more flexible and lighter than he could have imagined.
By doing that, McIntire rediscovered a method that Swedish inventor Carl Munters (who with Baltzar von Platen had invented the gas absorption refrigerator) had previously patented–Munters sold his patents to Dow.
It was not the rubber-substitute McIntire was searching for, but it was nevertheless a major discovery. Lightweight and water resistant, this extruded polystyrene was patented in 1944 and named Styrofoam.
Polystyrene was discovered in 1839 by a German apothecary called Eduard Simon. But he didn’t really know what he had discovered.
In 1922, another German, a man named Hermann Staudinger, published his work on this substance isolated from natural resin, stating that the materials manufactured by the thermal processing of styrene were similar to rubber—certainly why McIntire searched in that direction for his rubber substitute.
Expanded polystyrene was invented in 1949 by Dr. Fritz Stastny, a scientist working at BASF in Germany.
Ray McIntire retired in 1981 as Dow’s director of technology and acquisition. He died in 1996 from interstitial fibrosis.