The Other Wyeth
Anyone can be an artist, but not all art is good.
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Odd pairings are legendary. There’s Bill and Hillary. Jimmy Carter and his beer-drinking brother, Billy. And then there’s Andrew Wyeth and his brother, Nat. One is an artist famed for his depictions of the parched winter landscapes of Maine and Chadds Ford. The other was responsible for much of the litter that mars those landscapes—and most others, as well.
Nathaniel Wyeth, an engineer who spent his career with DuPont, invented the plastic soda bottle. That’s the bottle—patented in 1973—whose manufacture requires 1.5 million barrels of oil annually and has only a one-in-five chance of ever being recycled.
During his career, Wyeth invented or was the co-inventor of 25 products and processes in plastics, textile fibers, electronics and mechanical systems. In 1986, he was elected to the Plastics Hall of Fame. He also was a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
“Very seldom do [ideas] come out of nowhere,” Wyeth told Kenneth A. Brown, author of Inventors at Work, in the 1980s. “It’s usually a culmination of one thought after another that leads to a solution and a complete understanding of the problem.”
“Complete” in his eyes, perhaps.
The third child of Carolyn and Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth, Nathaniel was initially named for his father. But the boy’s parents went to court before he reached age 5 and had his name legally changed.
It was their habit to put toddler Nat out on a sunny, enclosed porch in a baby carriage for his daily nap. But his hands were always greasy when they got him up. “One day, they kept an eye on me,” Wyeth said later. “Then, they noticed me lean over the side of the coach, reach down and move the wheels with my hands.”
By turning the wheels, the little boy made the coach move from one end of the porch to the other. Back and forth, over and over, and dirtying his hands in the process.
“I don’t know why we should encumber this boy with an artist’s name when he’s undoubtedly going to be an engineer,” said his father. “Look at his understanding of those wheels and the way he’s moving that coach!”
So, Newell Convers Wyeth Jr. became Nathaniel Convers Wyeth, a name he shared with an uncle who was an engineer.
Throughout his life, Wyeth dismissed the notion—posed repeatedly—that his father might have been disappointed that he didn’t paint. “The only thing he insisted on was that whatever we did, we should do it with all our hearts, with all our might,” he said.
And he did. As a boy, Wyeth cannibalized “I don’t know how many” alarm clocks for parts to build model speedboats. He used an airplane propeller to drive a pontoon boat. And he built a “sea sled”—6 feet long, with a curved bow and an outboard motor—so fast the Wyeths dubbed it Ex-Lax. When the Wyeths sailed to Monhegan Island during their Maine summers, Nat went along in Ex-Lax, doing circles around the family’s larger, slower powerboat. “The local paper,” said Wyeth, “wrote that I had taken Ex-Lax and gone to Monhegan,” a description which confused or offended some readers. “It sounded terrible.”
Later, Nat expanded on the curved-bow idea to build a 20-foot hydroplane. N.C. Wyeth provided a Ford V8 engine and, when the craft was launched, the artist personally waded into the frigid Maine waters to christen his son’s Silver Foil with champagne. “He was so excited that he forgot to take his watch out,” said Wyeth, “and it just got soaked.”
Silver Foil reached 45-50 miles per hour, but never had quite enough power to plane—that is, to lift out of the water. “It had a manual transmission, and we just couldn’t shift it fast enough,” said Wyeth.
Wyeth earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Penn, a school recommended by another engineer-uncle, Stimson Wyeth. After college, he joined Delco, a Dayton, Ohio, auto-parts company recommended by his namesake, Uncle Nathaniel.
At Delco, Wyeth made a good impression early on by solving a production problem in the manufacture of Sani-Flush, the toilet bowl cleaner. One of the ingredients kept plugging a valve in a machine that mixed the cleaner. The valve—essentially a gate or door—crossed from one side of a pipe to the other, but sometimes couldn’t close entirely because the gritty, acidic material was in the way.
Wyeth replaced the single-gate valve with a two-door version. The two doors met in the middle of the pipe where the material was moving fastest and less likely to clog. That got Wyeth a promotion to Delco’s R&D lab to work on new concepts and devices. It was exactly where he wanted to be—but at DuPont, near his home, not in Ohio. So, in 1936, as soon as an opportunity arose, Wyeth jumped ship.
At DuPont, Wyeth’s first invention was a machine that filled cardboard tubes with gunpowder to make dynamite. Previously, the process involved a lot of manual labor, requiring that employees be exposed to nitroglycerin, which dilates blood vessels (its medical purpose) and creates painful headaches. DuPont wanted to minimize this exposure.
Wyeth built a prototype that impressed his boss, who in turn showed it to the explosives supervisor. The higher-ups then authorized construction of a final version.
“That was music to my ears,” said Wyeth. “To see an idea finally go into motion is one of the most gratifying experiences I think anyone can have.”