To Dye For

By | January 22, 2016

For a while at my gym, we used to have “Tie-Dye Fridays,” where in our small group workouts we would all sport some kind of tie-dyed apparel. My own attire was a tie-dyed shirt that had screen-printed on it a stylized version of the “prism” cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Spinning the CD not long ago while I was working on a story about fabric and textile printing, it came to the song “Brain Damage” and the opening line “The lunatic is on the grass” (when listened to in 5.1 surround sound, the stoned laughter featured in the song flies around the room). As I went off on one of my historical tangents searching for related Digital Nirvana post fodder, I found a story that combines garment printing, prisms, and lunatics.

We begin with the latter. Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) may not be a household name today, but in the 17th century, he had quite the reputation, although it wasn’t always a good one. A German Jesuit scholar and polymath, he gave himself the nickname “Master of a Hundred Arts,” perhaps not knowing that it’s a no-no to give yourself a nickname. Anyway, he wrote long, scholarly dissertations on, indeed, hundreds of different topics. In some, he was right on the money, if not way ahead of his time. He believed that the Plague was caused by a microorganism which, at the time, was thought far more implausible than witchcraft. On the other hand, fascinated by Egypt, his attempted translations of hieroglyphics were found to be, in the words of Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, “utter nonsense.” Ouch.

And he was certainly very hands-on. In 1638, as Mt. Vesuvius was about to erupt, he had himself lowered down into the crater to have a look at what was going on. He was insatiably curious about almost everything, but had some pretty lunatic notions by today’s standards. He was among the first to study fossils, but assumed that they were the remains of a race of immense humans. He studied geology, optics, and medicine, and also designed a staggering number of inventions, including an Aeolian harp, a talking statue, and, unfortunately, what he called a Katzenklavier, or “cat piano.” You may want to skip to the next paragraph, but the Katzenklavier featured a row of cats in a box, and, when the player pressed a key, a spike would be driven into the tail of a cat which would yowl at a particular note. The cats were arranged in the box by the tone of their voice, so the Katzenklavier could be played like a proper keyboard. Yes, it sounds horrifying, but on the plus side, there is absolutely no evidence that anyone ever actually built such an instrument.

One of the other many things that Kircher studied and wrote about was optics. His 1646 thousand-page tome Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) was intended as an encyclopedic work on virtually every aspect of light, with an attempt to explain things such as “why is the sky blue?” (answer: “to provide a proper visual background for everything” [Glassie, 2012]). He did come up with one of the first descriptions of a microscope, which was really little more than a telescope turned the wrong way round. Kircher also played around with prisms and wrote in his own uniquely discursive way about spectroscopy.

For a long time, Kircher was read by virtually every intellectual in Europe, and there is little doubt that Kircher’s works were familiar to Sir Isaac Newton, who entered university while Kircher was still alive. Voltaire once commented that Newton got some of his ideas about color and sound from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, although there is little evidence to support it (Glassie, 2012).

We all know about Newton’s contributions to science, and there is scant space here to detail all his discoveries. One thing Newton proposed but did not himself empirically demonstrate was that the Earth was not a perfect sphere, instead (like many of its inhabitants) bulging around the middle whilst being flattened at the poles. This was a controversial notion amongst scientists—especially French scientists­—and phalanxes of them were dispatched to the Arctic Circle (the closest anyone could get to a pole in the 18th century) to make measurements. Another group was sent to South America and the equator, among them one Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701–1774), a French mathematician, geographer, and explorer. He and his colleagues traveled south to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and ended up in the Pacific coast town of Manta.

The expedition—like many in those days—was not a happy one, beset with many problems, and La Condamine left the group in a huff (although maybe it was more like a minute and a huff), ending up in Quito, Ecuador. He would soon bounce back to his colleagues, but not before discovering something that makes things bounce: rubber. La Condamine was the first European to encounter rubber (via South American rubber trees), and in 1736 he sent the first samples of the substance back to the Académie Royale des Sciences of France. Later, in 1751, he would present the first scientific paper (written by François Fresneau) on the properties of rubber. Later still, in 1770, British scientist Joseph Priestley discovered that the material was good for “rubbing off” pencil marks, whence the term “rubber.”

The commercial potential of rubber was recognized early on, and by the middle of the 19th century it was a hot commodity. The trouble that the nations of Europe were having, though, was finding a place that was conducive to growing rubber trees, at least on a commercial scale. Combine that with political problems—especially during World War I—that led to shortages and high prices, as well as certain limitations of natural rubber (namely thermal stability and its ability to “play nice” with petroleum products), and the fact that the explosion of the automobile industry was creating a high demand for tires, and the search was on for some kind of synthetic rubber.

Throughout the 1920s, the French, Germans, Russians, and Americans were all beavering away in their rubber rooms. We’ll leave them to their beavering, but want to zoom in on Wallace Carrothers (1896–1937), an American chemist working for DuPont. In 1930, Carrothers’ team, working on the synthetic rubber project, developed Neoprene, which is today widely acknowledged as the first successful synthetic rubber.

The discovery of Neoprene made Carrothers something of a star in the chemical world, but he suffered from an often crippling depression, and many of the requirements that came along with his professional ascendency—public speaking among them—worsened his moroseness, which led to a drinking problem. (And this was before video…) Complicating matters was the affair he was having with a married woman, as well as a strained relationship with his parents. In 1934, even as he was experiencing a highly fertile research period, he fell depressed enough to check into a psychiatric clinic.

A year later, he checked out and went back to work. At the time, DuPont gave researchers like Carrothers carte blanche to follow their chemical muse wherever it might lead. In Carrothers’ case, in 1936, research on polyamides led Carrothers’ team to invent what became known and commercialized as nylon, a successful artificial silk. First used for toothbrush bristles, it later became synonymous with ladies’ stockings and eventually turned out to have many many many other uses. The wide-scale development of plastics ensued.

Alas, in 1937, Carrothers—no better emotionally—committed suicide.

Before long, the search was on for a material to rival nylon, a task which fell to British chemist John Rex Whinfield (1901–1966) who, working on polyesters with James Tennant Dickson, patented, in 1941, the first polyester fiber, which they called Terylene and which later became popularly known as dacron.

By the 1950s, polyester-based textiles were becoming popular, and a lot of work was being done to try to decorate them. (Here is where things get a little difficult to verify.) In 1957, Noël de Plasse, a researcher working for Lainière de Roubaix, a French textile company (founded 1912), was mucking about with dyes, and what he found—or what he thought he found—was that, under high temperature, certain solid dyes could pass directly to the gaseous phase without first becoming a liquid. This is the physical process called sublimation, the same process that causes chunks of solid carbon dioxide (aka dry ice) to turn directly into the billowing clouds you would have seen at a Pink Floyd concert back in the day (sans pig). What de Plasse had discovered was eventually termed dye-sublimation, although it was later discovered that his dyes didn’t really sublimate, that it was more of a dye-diffusion process.

The idea languished for about 30 years until 1982 when Nobutoshi Kihara, an engineer working for Sony, adapted dye diffusion into a proper dye-sublimation process to print video stills taken with a Sony Mavica videocamera. Four years later, the first dye-sublimation printer, the Sony Mavigraph, hit the market.

Today, dye-sublimation printing on textiles and other materials is starting to take the specialty graphics industry by storm.

And maybe someday at my gym we’ll have tie-dye-sublimation Fridays.



John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.

Contributions from the Museum of Jurassic Technology,

“Athanasius Kircher,” Wikipedia, last modified November 1, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016,

“Cat organ,” Wikipedia, last modified October 27, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016,

“Charles Marie de La Condamine,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 21, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016,

“Wallace Carrothers,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 13, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016,

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