Bob Gore demonstrates how he stretched polytetrafluoroethylene and stumbled upon E-PTFE
The genesis of Gore-Tex in the 1960s marked a notable chapter in the annals of manmade fabrics. Wilbert Lee Gore, the founder of W.L. Gore & Associates in Newark, teamed up with his son Bob to craft what they thought was the first ever instance of this breathable, waterproof textile. Little did they know that half a world away New Zealand engineer John W. Cropper had made the same discovery three years earlier. Unfortunately for Cropper he had not patented the process.
Wilbert and Bob Gore’s discovery and subsequent commercial exploration of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) solidified their standing as innovators in the field of material science. Their synthetic resin development continues to drive changes across a broad spectrum of industries, including oil & gas, chemicals, and electronics.
From Basement Novelties to Global Impact
Wilbert and wife Genevieve established W.L. Gore & Associates in 1958. Gore had headed up operations research for the DuPont Company from 1945 till 1957. The Gores made their first product, an insulated computer cable, in their Newark basement. The company, specializing in fluoropolymer-derived products, has since grown to become a multinational manufacturing enterprise. Its wide portfolio of diverse consumer and industrial products ranges from microwave cable assemblies and dental floss to cellphone parts.
The company’s most renowned product, Gore-Tex, unexpectedly emerged in 1969. This revolutionary material originated from the Gores’ innovative work on computer ribbon cables, which utilized a compound known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), or Teflon.
Roy Plunkett, a DuPont chemist, accidentally discovered Teflon in 1938. DuPont later established a spin-off company, Chemours, which assumed the role of manufacturing Teflon.
A frustrated Bob Gore was seeking a better way to produce plumber’s tape. The prevalent manufacturing method was not only expensive but also inefficient.
This traditional process involved slowly stretching heated PTFE rods. Gore was trying to find a way to speed up that step. At one point, things weren’t working as he expected, and in irritation he yanked the heated PTFE rod. It was a Eureka! moment.
To his surprise, when he rapidly stretched polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the polymer expanded 800 percent in size. Gore’s exerted tension resulted in a lightweight, microporous structure composed of approximately 70 percent air. Despite this porous nature, the material exhibited a surprising characteristic – it was waterproof.
Gore dubbed this nonflammable, tough, waxy, and strong synthetic resin ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene). While Bob Gore’s accidental discovery of expanded PTFE (ePTFE) in 1969 didn’t directly result in a new method for manufacturing plumber’s tape, it led to the creation of a wide range of other products.
Bonding Fabrics, Breathing Innovation
W.L. Gore & Associates introduced its initial application of ePTFE in 1970, aimed at the computer industry for use in high-speed coaxial cables. However, the company later identified a more substantial application in the textile industry. Gore discovered that bonding ePTFE to fabric resulted in a material that could repel liquid water while allowing water vapor to permeate, providing an optimal balance of protection and breathability.
This laminate could be tailored to create a lightweight, versatile, all-weather waterproof layer. Capitalizing on this innovation, Gore made its first commercial sale of the resulting product, Gore-Tex, in 1976, to the Seattle-based outdoor gear company, Early Winters, Ltd.
In the early 1980s, despite being the initial patent-holder for ePTFE, W.L. Gore became embroiled in a complex legal battle. The company filed a lawsuit against Garlock, Inc., an industrial sealing products manufacturer, for using Gore’s patented ePTFE process on a machine they bought from John W. Cropper. The legal tussle centered around Cropper’s failure to promptly patent his ePTFE process, which he had developed prior to W.L. Gore, yet bore striking similarities. Despite this intricate legal labyrinth, the court ultimately upheld the validity of Gore’s patent.
The story of Gore-Tex illustrates that the path to innovation isn’t always predictable. It highlights the importance of curiosity, the value of exploration, and the surprising influence of serendipity in scientific advancements.