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Anthony N. Stranges and Richard C. Jones

Baekeland, Leo Hendrik (14 November 1863–23 February 1944), chemist and inventor, was born in St. Martens-Latem, near Ghent, Belgium, the son of Karel Baekeland, a cobbler, and Rosalia Merchie, a housemaid. A government scholarship enabled Baekeland to enter the University of Ghent, where he studied chemistry in the School of Exact Sciences. He received a B.S. in 1882 and a D.Sc. in organic chemistry in 1884, passing the examination with highest honors. The following year he became an assistant to Theodore Swarts, a professor of chemistry at Ghent. In 1887 Baekeland won a traveling scholarship in an academic competition sponsored by the Universities of Ghent, Liege, Brussels, and Louvain. He postponed travel and instead continued as an assistant professor and then as associate professor from 1888 to 1889 at Ghent and at the nearby Higher Normal School at Bruges from 1885 to 1887. In 1889 he married Swarts’s daughter, Céline, an artist; they had two children. The couple used Baekeland’s scholarship for travel to France, Britain, and the United States that year....

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Ellis, Carleton (20 September 1876–13 January 1941), chemist and inventor, was born in Keene, New Hampshire, the son of Marcus Ellis, a merchant, and Catherine Goodnow. Ellis received a camera from his father for his eleventh birthday and became an amateur photographer. Obsessed with the chemistry of photography, he pursued experiments in a home laboratory to the dismay of his parents, who considered this a wasteful extravagance. In 1896 he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a B.S. in chemistry in 1900 and serving as an instructor in chemistry until 1902. In 1901 he married Birdella May Wood of Dayton, Ohio; they had four children....

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Gillette, King Camp (05 January 1855–09 July 1932), inventor and social theorist, was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the son of George Wolcott Gillette, a hardware wholesaler, and Fanny Lemira Camp, later the author of the bestselling White House Cookbook. Shortly before the Civil War the family moved to Chicago, where he graduated from high school. Gillette clerked in a hardware store and then became a traveling salesman. Like his father and two older brothers, he delighted in inventive tinkering, and in 1879 he was granted his first patent, for a water-faucet component. In 1890 he married Atlanta Ella Gaines; they had one son....

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Hyatt, John Wesley (28 November 1837–10 May 1920), inventor, was born in Starkey, New York, the son of John Wesley Hyatt, a blacksmith, and Anne Gleason. His education in ordinary schools was supplemented by one year at the Eddystone Seminary. At the age of sixteen Hyatt moved to Illinois, where he took up his first trade as a printer. It was perhaps in this work that he could begin to display some of his considerable abilities as a mechanic....

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Nestle, Charles (02 May 1872–22 January 1951), creator of permanent waving devices for human hair, was born Karl Ludwig Nessler, in Todtnau, Bavaria, the son of Bartholomew Nessler, a shoemaker, and Rosina Laitner. For some unknown reason, the vagaries of hair fascinated Nestle as a young man. He invested long hours in the study of its properties. This youthful interest led Nestle to work briefly in a neighboring village as a barber’s apprentice. Not long after, he traversed the border into nearby Switzerland to work successive jobs in small electric appliance and watch parts firms. Although he developed solid knowledge of simple mechanics and electric motors and equipment, Nestle soon tired of factory work and followed his early interest in hair to salons, where he learned to cut it and wave it, while closely studying its properties....

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Plunkett, Roy Joseph (26 June 1910–12 May 1994), chemist and research director, was born in New Carlisle, Ohio, the son of Joseph Henry Plunkett and Elizabeth May Garst, farmers. His parents belonged to the Church of the Brethren, whose members were known as Dunkards, or Dunkers, and he was raised strictly in the faith. He graduated from Newton High School in Pleasant Hill, Ohio, in 1927 and entered Manchester College, a Dunkard school, in North Manchester, Indiana, from which he received his A.B. in chemistry in 1932. He roomed and was friends with future (1974) Nobel chemistry laureate ...

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Tupper, Earl Silas (28 July 1907–03 October 1983), inventor, was born in Berlin, New Hampshire, the son of farmers. Soon after his birth the family moved to a farm in Massachusetts where young Tupper enjoyed buying and selling vegetables. After graduating from high school in 1926, Tupper turned his hobby into a small mail-order business for household items such as combs and toothbrushes. During this time the self-described “ham inventor and Yankee trader” found another area in which to tinker—chemical engineering. Tupper’s self-taught skills led him to Du Pont, where he worked as an engineer during the 1930s. While at Du Pont, Tupper became fascinated by plastic, an interest that continued through the remainder of his life....

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Wyeth, N. C. (24 October 1911–04 July 1990), engineer and inventor, was born Newell Convers Wyeth in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the son of Newell Convers “N. C.” Wyeth, an acclaimed illustrator, and Carolyn Brenneman Bockius. Wyeth’s childhood in Chadds Ford, with extended summer vacations in Port Clyde, Maine, was filled with creativity and exploration. While three of his four siblings were drawn immediately to studying art with their father, Wyeth showed an early interest and ability in engineering. When he was only three or four, his parents observed him rolling his buggy back and forth across the veranda, explaining his greasy hands after what was supposed to be a nap. This prompted his father to change Wyeth’s name from Newell to Nathaniel, after his uncle, an engineer. Such an early disposition for physical manipulation occupied much of his youth. He frequently would dismantle clocks and use their parts to power model speedboats, and he spent a great deal of time fashioning scale models of furniture. One of the most influential lessons taught by Wyeth’s father was the benefits of work done well. During Wyeth’s first attempt at building a scale wooden ladder-backed chair, his father, while supporting his attempt, pointed out in what ways the chair could have been better. This quiet lesson and others like it were not lost on Wyeth, as he knew that the well-planned, carefully completed route to finishing any project would provide the best products. This patience, combined with skill, led him to become a talented and prolific inventor....