Back in the halcyon days (grass, greener etc.) days of the 1950s, Ealing Studios produced a series of comedies that most people today would look at you blankly if you mentioned their names. In their own way, each of these films is a little gem, and in the same way that ‘comedy’ doesn’t really do a play by Shakespeare justice, so too do these films consider the complexity and perplexity of life, particular from the perspective of the post-war working and middle classes. Passport for Pimlico, for example, sees a long lost document declaring the independence of a region of London, at a time when rationing is still in place. Independence means that they can get rid of rationing, right? Good times.
In “The Man in the White Suit”, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, I mean Alec Guinness, plays a chemist called Sidney Stratton, who has invented a new chemical that can be used to produce a cloth with wishalloy-like properties: nearly indestructible, completely wipe clean etc etc. The cloth is slightly luminous, because it ‘contains radioactive elements’ – but I’m not going to look at that here – and a side effect of the wipe-cleanability is that it cannot be dyed. It is so tough that it cannot be cut by normal means and needs something like an oxy-acetylene cutting torch to be shaped (although from memory there was no issue with sewing, although of course that merely utilises the holes between the fibres, rather than needing to do anything to the fibres themselves). The new fibre predates the nearest equivalent, aramid, by about 14 years – the first commercial form of aramid was trade-marked by DuPont as Kevlar.
Firstly, let’s take a quick look at a basic textile fibre – viscose rayon. Viscose rayon is a cellulosic fibre that was first produced in the late 19th Century and then commercialised in the very early 20th Century. In can be made from a variety of biomass sources, and the process simply isolates cellulose from these sources and allows it to be turned into a continuous fibre. I’m summarising, of course. There are a number of routes to produce such rayon fibres, and the viscose method is but one, although one of the more popular ones. Viscose rayon is considered to be semi-synthetic, unlike nylon for example, which is a purely synthetic one. Viscose rayon was originally marketed as a synthetic silk, and its place in the textile industry is firmly established.
As is typical for wishalkene (as I said yesterday, my equivalent of wishalloy for polymers), the material has an idealised set of properties that draws on aspects of a number of different polymers. For example, the wipe-cleanability owes a lot to PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), but this does not have the strength and toughness characteristics that we require for Sidney Stratton’s discovery.
In terms of the radioactive glow, this owes more to the public perception of radioactivity than to the reality – on a par with Dan Brown’s views on CERN and antimatter. There is a part of me that wonders if Ealing got a tax break on the film by making the radioactive materials look more comical, in order to reduce the public anxiety about nuclear power and weapons. Whilst it is possible that certain radioactive substances would be used in the manufacturing process, these are more likely to be catalysts that are recovered than a critical functional group of the final product – although that is speculation. If it were a fundamental part of the polymer itself then it is probably a good job that fibre turns out not to be a go-er, as the suit would have had long term health implications for the wearer. One might also anticipate the manufacturers giving rise to a whole new generation of ‘Radium Girls’ – and again, it is surprising that the writers of the film didn’t factor this in as the young women who had painted the radium dials of watches, clocks and other scientific instruments had, by this time, successfully sued their employers for damages for the inflicted suffering from radiation poisoning and a slew of radium related health problems.
There are a number of other aspects that we could consider – the toughness of the fibre, its wear-resistance, its strength. However, the dramatic imperative, as it were, of the story, is the friction between research and finance. In a modern view of sustainability there is a question of whether it is better to have something that lasts longer, or something that is easier to replace (again I’m summarising on a truly heroic scale). The dénouement comes once the workers and the owners realise that the miracle material is not necessarily going to be the financial and long term success that people are hoping for – if your suit never wears out, then you won’t want to buy a new one. (The writers rather overlooked the force of the fashion industry). Sidney is through the streets by a mob: it is night-time, naturally, and his glowing suit is easy to spot and difficult to hide – stuff doesn’t stick to it, remember? The mob capture him with, as they say blood in their eye…but they are pacified when they find that his cloth is not as indestructible as was first thought. They rip his suit to shreds as the molecule has an unsuspected instability, leaving him standing there in, to use a modern turn of phrase, his shreddies. But that is not quite the end of the film. There is a nice little wrap-up in the offices of the textile mill (the next morning when Alec has a new suit on, this time not made from his wonder material. He is sacked, but leaves in relatively high spirits, consulting his note book. You can time to the second the point that realisation strikes and he cries “I see!” and strides off…