The Brothers Dreyfus, Chemical Pioneers


By Dr. Alfred E. Brown
Director, Scientific Affairs
Celanese Corporation

Presented at the 28th American Chemical Society
Southeast Regional Meeting at the Symposium on
Milestones in Chemistry: in our Nation and in the Southeast

October 27th -29th, 1976
Knoxville, Tennessee


The previous speaker described the exciting story of nylon invented by Dr. Wallace H. Carothers, a brilliant chemical pioneer. Like most inventors, Dr. Carothers did not commercialize his invention. In fact, few inventors succeed in personally commercializing their inventions. On the other hand, the story I'll tell today about the Dreyfus brothers is a rather unique and happier one for inventors. Rarely are chemical pioneers able to bring inventions to successful commercialization on a grand scale such as they did. The two Dreyfus brothers, Drs. Camille and Henry, brilliant and creative chemists, were able to accomplish this by making hundreds of inventions and numerous technical developments, by achieving successful production, and by their marketing and financial achievements.

Today, I'll concentrate on the technical contributions of these two pioneers, outline their approaches and concepts, and note their persistence in overcoming numerous obstacles, including the crisis which World War I presented, to build the first man-made chemical fiber plant in England. Camille Dreyfus then established the American company in the southeast in the early 1920s.  The distinction of pioneering in the centuries-old fiber industry in the United States clearly belongs to Dr. Camille Dreyfus. Until his appearance on the industrial scene, the use of cellulose acetate fibers, the first fibers made from the chemical reaction of cellulose with acetic anhydride to produce a different chemical entity, was non-existent. The growth of this fiber, cellulose acetate (CA), assured the success of the present Celanese Corporation, which ranked 108th in sales among the largest enterprises in the country in 1975, with many plants throughout the southeast in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Not only the Celanese Corporation of which he was President but also the entire chemical fibers industry stand as a monuments to Dr. Camille Dreyfus because he charted the paths subsequently followed by all other chemical fiber companies.

My story begins in Basel, Switzerland, where Camille and Henry Dreyfus received their Ph. D. degrees in chemistry in 1901 and 1904, respectively, at the University of Basel. After graduation and some practical experience they manufactured and sold synthetic indigo but found the market too small for their goal of making a fortune. So, in seeking other opportunities they found one in improving on celluloid.  This material was flammable and there was a clear need for a non-flammable substance. The Dreyfuses saw a large market for motion picture film which would not ignite, and toilet articles which would not scorch when exposed to flames. Based on their previous knowledge of cellulose, they decided that CA would be an ideal candidate for these markets. They also saw the possibility of a luxurious artificial silk fiber from CA. The fiber would be both less expensive and superior to the artificial silk products of that time, which were based on either nitrocellulose or viscose.

No production process for CA was known in 1908. The Dreyfus brothers realized that for CA to become a commercial reality, they had to assure both its quality and the cost of production, particularly the cost at which they could make acetic acid and acetic anhydride for CA's manufacture, and the solvents for its commercial application. They realized that CA would have to compete in quality, price, and properties with cellulose nitrate, from which celluloid was made. Even in those early years, the commercial genius of the brothers was evident.

The brothers checked all processes previously described in the literature, which dated back to 1865, and then carried out more than 20,000 experiments in their laboratories to develop a process. All experiments were designed to arrive at some conclusion as to the effect of the various factors, such as the nature and proportion of catalyst, quantities of the acetylating reagents and diluent, times and temperatures of the acetylation, and the state of reactivity of the raw cellulose. Practically nothing was known of the structure of cellulose at the time. Their work was purely empirical, the only method of attack available. The Dreyfuses struck new ground and made acetate products with solubility characteristics unlike any previously obtained and with much higher viscosities. They were the first to realize the importance of the acetyl content of CA as that affects the properties of the material.

The Dreyfus brothers made a distinct departure form the existing art in that they showed that viscosity, high tensile strength, and elasticity are complementary. They also found how to avoid cellulose degredation - long before the polymeric nature of cellulose was discovered many years later. Their early findings have stood the test of time and can now be explained theoretically, based on later research.

The first patent application by Camille Dreyfus was filed on June 5, 1911. Subsequently, more than 225 patents were issued to him, and more than 100 to Henry. By 1910 the Dreyfuses had a small factory in Switzerland producing 1-2 tons of acetate a day, the product going into pathe-cinema film and toilet articles. Realizing that acetate had a brighter future in artificial silk than some of the cellulosic fibers of that time, they researched CA's prospects as a fiber. Keep in mind the excitement in the latter part of the 19th century as European chemists were pursuing the elusive notion of artificial silk - a scientific notion which, if successful, could create a commercial revolution.

By the time the Dreyfuses were making acetate fibers in their lab, the notion had been realized and the revolution had begun. For example, in 1907 some 13 million pounds of synthetic yarns were sold, and by 1910 this had increased to 16 million pounds. The Dreyfuses noted that all three methods used for yarn manufacture began with cellulose which was modified and then regenerated. The processes were based on (1) nitrocellulose discovered in 1884; (2) cuprammonium in 1890; and (3) the popular viscose process in 1892. No wonder the opportunity loomed so large in Camille Dreyfus's mind as the brothers vigorously pursued their experiments to make artificial silk from acetate, a process which would not require a regeneration step.

Success in making excellent samples of filament yarn from acetate came by 1913 but the outbreak of World War I changed the entire situation. CA played a large part in that war. It's been said by experts that the supremacy of the air in World War I was intimately connected with the question of the quality and supply of CA. It was uniquely suited for coating and preserving the fabric of airplane wings to impart to them the necessary properties of tautness, resiliency, and waterproofing. Its non-flammability was a lifesaver for many pilots. The wings of the aircraft used by England, France, Italy, and the United States were all coated with dope made from CA. Previously, the wings of British aircraft were coated with nitrocellulose dope, which was highly flammable and easily ignited by the incendiary tracer bullets of the enemy.

The brothers first supplied the Allies from their Swiss plant, but governments soon saw that they should ensure adequate supplies within their own borders. Subsequently, France, Italy, and England entered into arrangements with the Dreyfus brothers to build plants. Although tempted by the British to exchange his CA patents for subsidization of his plant and the purchase of its entire output, Camille Dreyfus knew that the war would eventually end, and he foresaw greater fortunes form his acetate patents in the post-war days. Therefore, this courageous young man persuaded the British to allow him to build and finance the plant himself. America also appreciated the aeronautical use of CA and early in 1918 Camille Dreyfus entered into agreements with the United States government to build a plant in Cumberland, Maryland. In November 1918, when the war ended, the Dreyfus brothers had a large plant operating in England with the capacity of about eight tons of CA a day (and no market for it), other foreign plants, and a half-finished plant on 800 acres in Cumberland, Maryland.
Meanwhile, during the war years, Camille Dreyfus's prediction about the bright future of artificial silk was being borne out in that sales had expanded to 32 million pounds, 6 million pounds being sold in the United Sates. Thus, in 1919, the brothers went back to the lab, where they had previously made specimens of acetate fiber, and pursued their dreams of making CA fibers on a commercial scale. Now they could concentrate on spinning of the fiber because their previous problems such as manufacture of CA, acetic acid, acetic anhydride, and the necessary solvents had already been accomplished on a commercial scale in England during the war.

Thoroughly familiar with the details of the various processes which had been used to make artificial silk, the brothers abandoned the conventional approaches of wet spinning and tried all conceivable methods of dry spinning - upward, horizontal, and downward. They finally found the solution by spinning downwards from a multihole jet into narrow columns, a fundamental departure from the known methods of dry spinning. It rendered possible a longer drying length of filament in the spinning machine and permitted the filaments to be taken outside the spinning columns substantially dry and to be wound up outside on bobbins. Relatively high speeds were  achieved and an economical spinning process resulted. Note that the inventors always had costs in mind because they were competing with the current artificial silk process.

Many troubles were encountered in the initial stages of commercial production. There was a question of uniform denier which had to be solved to avoid fabric and dyeing non-uniformity. They were confronted with the problem that there were no dyes which would dye CA fibers. To solve this problem rapidly the Dreyfuses solicited the efforts of many dyestuff manufacturers and outstanding British dyers to develop dyes and the procedures for applying them. The solution to this problem, and the continued improvements made since, constitute one of the brightest pages in the history of the dyeing industry, and a major reason for the award of the Perkin Medal in 1938 to Dr. Henry Dreyfus. The solution of the problem, lay in applying insoluble dyes, finely dispersed in oil, to dye the CA. The fiber could then be dyed in a range of shades sufficiently wide and of sufficient fastness for commercial requirements. Other problems such as developing printing techniques, learning how to knit and weave the fiber by new techniques (including the building of new knitting machines and weaving looms), problems in making fiber staple, in crimping the fibers, and in consistently improving fiber properties, were all overcome.

After Camille Dreyfus came to the United States, he remained here to build the Celanese Company while Henry ran the British company. One of the most imaginative men in the U. S. industry, Camille Dreyfus continued to overcome many business problems other than technical ones after the corporation was established. From the start of production of CA here in 1925, Camille Dreyfus steadfastly refused to have his patent product included in the generic term "rayon," and he won the battle personally by emphasizing not only the chemical difference, but also the superiority of his product to rayon. Marketing troubles were surmounted by the trade name "Celanese," which gave the fiber a quality image compared to ordinary rayon. In this battle, as in others, he overcame obstacles because of his all-around ability in the conception, development, production, sale, and financing of his product. As we all know, pioneers overcome obstacles with a combination of genius and luck and it's truly amazing that these inventors - who held nearly all world patents affecting acetate yarn - could succeed and found an entire new industry despite the obstacles I've mentioned.

What can be said about the qualities of these two outstanding brothers? Both had strong chemical backgrounds. Henry Dreyfus continued on that path throughout his life whereas Camille Dreyfus, who had considerable flair and skill in financing, marketing, sales, and overall business areas, was the prime mover in establishing the Celanese Corporation. Both were energetic, creative, and persistent in everything they did.

The brothers were very close to each other throughout their lives and phoned daily from New York to London, wrote many letters and memos, and praised each other's contributions, both in public and in their correspondence, which I read. In 1946, after Henry's death, Camille established the Dreyfus Foundation in his memory. In remarks on the occasion Camille Dreyfus noted they were the closest and most devoted companions and co-workers, playing, working and struggling together with a common aim.

During the past 30 years the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which is dedicated to the advancement of the chemical sciences, has done much to support such research in the universities as well as in its own Dreyfus Research Laboratory at the Research Triangle Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in the Camille Dreyfus Building on the campus of MIT. Through this memorial these chemical pioneers have continued to foster the advancement of science in chemical fields, particularly in polymer chemistry.

Honors bestowed upon the brothers were Officer of the Legion of Honor, France's recognition of their creative achievements; the British Perkin Gold Medal to Henry Dreyfus in 1938; and the Modern Pioneer Award to Camille Dreyfus in 1940 by the National Association of Manufacturers. The Perkin Medal is the highest honor awarded in recognition of inventions, or work of outstanding technical merit, in connection with advances in the fibers and dyestuffs fields.

From the beginning of the twentieth century when almost everything people wore came from a cotton field, a sheep's back, or a silkworm, the situation is vastly different today in that the vision and efforts of the Dreyfus brothers laid the foundations for the present multibillion pound man-made fiber industry. These pioneers will always be remembered by those of us in the Celanese family who are indebted to them for the founding of our corporation and its early successful growth, which led to its present size and stature in the chemical industry.