In the beginning of the twentieth century, almost all clothing came from a cotton field, a sheep’s back, or a silkworm. Thanks to turn-of-the century pioneers like Camille and Henry Dreyfus, today synthetic fibers offer style and convenience for millions.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, and educated in Basel and at the Sorbonne, the Dreyfus brothers devoted a lifetime to the scientific and commercial development of cellulose acetate, conducting more than 20,000 experiments in realizing their goals. Their initial interest in the material was spurred by the need for nonflammable film—as a substitute for celluloid—for the fledgling photography and motion picture industries. Their vision extended to a potentially large market for toilet articles that would not scorch when exposed to flames, and the possibility of a luxurious artificial silk fiber made from cellulose acetate.
In 1908, the Dreyfus brothers began their concentrated work on creating a production process for cellulose acetate film and fibers, making products with unprecedented solubility and high viscosities. They were among the first to realize the importance of the acetyl content of cellulose acetate as it affects the properties of the material and, in fact, showed that viscosity, high tensile strength, and elasticity are complementary. The pioneering brothers were also able to avoid cellulose degradation, years before the polymeric nature of cellulose was discovered.
World War I interrupted the Dreyfus brothers’ work on commercial fiber development, when the role of cellulose acetate proved to be important in the war effort. The fiber was uniquely suited for coating and preserving the fabric of airplane wings to impart properties of tautness, resiliency, waterproofing, and most important, nonflammability. The wings of aircraft used by England, France, Italy, and the United States were all coated with dope made from cellulose acetate, produced by the Dreyfus brothers in England. In 1917, the U.S. government asked the Dreyfuses to establish a plant in America for the same purpose. Built in Cumberland, Maryland, that facility became the first commercially operating plant of the American Cellulose & Chemical Manufacturing Company (Amcelle), which changed its name to the Celanese Corporation of America in 1927.
In 1919, the brothers resumed their efforts to commercialize cellulose acetate fibers. They encountered numerous challenges, not the least of which was dyeing the fibers. The efforts of several dyestuff manufacturers and outstanding British dyers were enlisted, and a solution was found: insoluble dyes finely dispersed in oil. The fiber could then be dyed in a range of shades sufficiently wide and colorfast for the commercial markets, an achievement that constitutes one of the most important chapters in the history of the dyeing industry. For his work in this area, in 1938 Henry Dreyfus was awarded the Perkin Research Medal, the highest honor of the Society of Dyers and Colourists of Great Britain.
Henry Dreyfus remained focused on technical development throughout his life, and managed the British company. Camille Dreyfus, who had considerable flair for finance, sales, and management, built the Celanese Corporation in the U.S., focusing on cellulose acetate for consumers. He dubbed the fibers and fabrics “Celanese,” which came to be synonymous with quality and ease of care.
The Dreyfus brothers were widely recognized as chemical pioneers and exceptional businessmen. Honors awarded them included Officer of the Legion of Honor to Camille Dreyfus, from the French Government; the Perkin Research Medal to Henry Dreyfus; and the Modern Pioneer Award to Camille Dreyfus from the National Association of Manufacturers.