The Other Wyeth
Anyone can be an artist, but not all art is good.
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The plastic soda bottle was purely Wyeth’s idea. Informed that plastic couldn’t withstand the pressure of carbonation, Wyeth wanted to see for himself. He went home, filled an empty detergent bottle with ginger ale and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, the bottle was so swollen that it had become trapped. Wyeth couldn’t remove it until he had carefully bled off some of the built-up pressure.
“No wonder they don’t put carbonated beverages in plastic bottles,” he realized. “They’re too weak.”
Wyeth knew that plastic could be strong. Previously, he’d been involved in the development of Typar—a polypropylene sheeting material used as backing for rugs—for building wrap, to cover muddy areas before pouring concrete, and as landscape fabric to suppress weeds. From his experience working with nylon, Wyeth knew that the strength of plastic increases when it is stretched. When making nylon thread, for instance, stretching causes the molecules in the material to line up. But unlike thread, which needs to be strong in only one direction, plastic bottles needed to be strong biaxially. That is, from top to bottom and from side to side.
Wyeth solved the problem with what he called a “preform” mold, which looked like a test tube with screw threads on the inside. Rather than running in a single spiral, however, the mold had two sets that crossed each other in a diamond crisscross pattern. When the plastic was extruded through this mold, its molecules aligned in the biaxial fashion that Wyeth intended. “It took a lot of experimentation,” he said.
Working with one assistant and a hand press, Wyeth produced many shapeless globs of plastic and, later, some truly ugly containers. “I remember bringing some of those samples over to my boss,” recalled Wyeth. “He’d ask, ‘Is this all you’ve done for $50,000?’”
Wyeth later estimated that he had made 10,000 attempts. Success came late in the day, when the lab was dimly lit. He and his assistant opened the mold, expecting more shapeless globs of resin. Instead, the mold seemed to be empty. They looked closer, and found a crystal-clear bottle. “Since then, I’ve seen countless truly beautiful PET bottles,” said Wyeth. “But none of them will ever be as memorable as the first.”
That first bottle was polypropylene. Then, as his final improvement, Wyeth replaced polypropylene with PET, which has superior elastic properties but is permeable to carbon dioxide over time. Put a Coke on the shelf for six months, and it will go flat. That never happened when soda was bottled in glass. It’s why soft drinks now have expiration dates.
By 1980, production of plastic beverage bottles had exploded to 2.5 billion containers—and by 1985, to 5.5 billion units. Glass became obsolete. Plastics experts predict that the PET bottle will eventually be standard for wine, liquor, beer and many other products. (And, of course, for roadsides.)
Years earlier, defending his son’s career choice, N.C. Wyeth had insisted, “An engineer is just as much an artist as a painter.”
But the elder Wyeth—famously critical of his own work—also knew that not all art is good.