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Pinch Hitters for Defense

Posted on December 1, 1941

Popular Mechanics, Vol. 76 December, 1941 No. 6

Over in England it’s saccharine for sugar; on the continent it’s charcoal “gasogenes” in the rumble seat instead of gasoline in the tank. Here in America there’s plenty of sugar, plenty of gasoline. Yet there’s an industrial revolution in progress just the same, a revolution in materials that will affect every home.

Perhaps it won’t change your way of living very drastically. You shouldn’t care greatly if the glint of chromium on your car is replaced by the brilliance and color of plastics; you won’t mind wearing hairpins of wood or plastic when you know that even the metal in hairpins is coveted by defense factories; and what if you must step backward from zipper to buttons? After all, your grandfather’s overalls got along tolerably well before the era of the slide fastener. And perhaps you won’t be denied the zipper anyway. Metal ones, true, may vanish from the counters, but already a zipper of glass is being tested in government laboratories, a machine sliding it open and shut hundreds of thousands of times to determine how it will wear.

Yesterday, you lived in the age of metals. Today, metal is yours only to the point where your need encroaches on that of your country’s defense; for the moment, it is an age of substitutes. Tomorrow — the post-war tomorrow — those substitutes may have proved superior; the plastics and synthetic yarns and new chemicals and molded wood products and other substitutes invented under the drive of necessity may crowd out the traditional materials in a brighter new world.

Despite the swiftness of the changes, most of them you will never notice. Since human nature resists radical change, the manufacturers are seeking substitutes as nearly like the originals as possible. Neckties of spun glass are as beautiful as those of silk, may resist wrinkling even better. Plastic tips for shoestrings released about a half million pounds of metals, principally tin, to more vital industries in 1941 alone and you never knew the difference. Long before the emergency shut down silk supplies, du Pont chemical magicians had plucked out of the air, the sea and the coal mine the elements of nylon, and mills fabricating nylon hosiery were expanding rapidly; and government research men were developing lovely new designs for cotton stockings, intent on making attractive a silk substitute of which there have been burdensome oversupplies for years. Today’s cotton hose are more durable than silk, far more gossamer and form-fitting than the cotton stockings of bygone years. And from the Soviet Union comes word of a new clothing fabric that is half wool and half fiber from the albumen found in the seeds of the lupine, the desert flower.

You still find aluminum kitchenware in the stores, but when it’s gone there won’t be any more, for a while. One sales organization for aluminumware saw the coming “drought” and is now selling sterling silver. But in place of aluminum pots and pans you find utensils of glass and iron and enamelware and other substitutes — and the fricassee cooked in them tastes all right.

You can buy a shower stall made of pressed wood or a plastic based on cotton-wood pulp, impervious to water. Your refrigerator, which has always had some plastic parts, will have a lot more in 1942. Two leading manufacturers are saving 6,000,000 pounds of aluminum this year by using other metals or plastics in refrigerators, and another big appliance maker is conserving enough aluminum to build 130 twin-engine bombing planes, besides saving 150,000 pounds of nickel and 100,000 pounds of zinc. Incidentally, the conservation of zinc may affect face powder, in which zinc is commonly used as an adherent element.

Discussing the hunt for new materials, AW Robertson, chairman of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, said that “to our surprise, we have found that many of our substitutes proved to be better than the originals. While we have been looking for one thing, we often found an improved material or device that we weren’t even trying to find.”

Agitators for washing machines are being molded of plastics or shaped from Masonite hardwood, vacuum cleaners will have molded nozzles, and even the kitchen towels, shelves and aprons will feel the impact of a world at war. Metal cabinets give way to wood. Cotton and other domestic fabrics will replace the imported linen dish towels. Cotton and oilcloth aprons will appear on the hook where the rubber apron used to hang.

Around the new bungalow you’ll find glass door knobs and hardware of transparent Lucite. In place of the stainless steel or aluminum molding that decorated the kitchen sink you’ll see panels and trim of Tenite, a shatterproof plastic that comes in any color and is extruded from a die in long strips much as toothpaste is squeezed from a tube. The radio set and the camera are likely to have plastic cases, and probably there will be fewer and fewer of those bright metal accessories in which the camera enthusiast glories. Uncle Sam comes first, and he not only wants the metals that went into photographic supplies but he’s buying a vast amount of camera equipment himself.

However, this business of substituting plastics for steel and other defense-precious metals can’t go on indefinitely. The plastics themselves are becoming precious. Theirs is still an infant industry, and piling new demands for plastics as substitutes upon already heavy demands for plastics for their own intrinsic beauty and utility has created one more shortage. Annual production of plastics is about 160,000,000 pounds, while steel production is above 80,000,000 tons. Formaldehyde, one of the principle ingredients of plastics, is required in the making of munitions, phenolic compounds are also under priority orders and thus the supply of plastics for your home is limited. An end result is almost sure to be rapid expansion of facilities for the manufacture of plastics, and an age of plastics after the war.

The first of the 1942 automobiles still glittered with trim of chromium and stainless steel, but as the year 1942 opens the bright metal begins to vanish and plastic trimmings or fewer trimmings appear. Some cars which had aluminum pistons are going over to iron. A carbon-molybdenum steel alloy of which the ingredients are plentiful is replacing nickel steel. One automobile has a glass tail light, silvered inside so that you’ll think it’s all chromium unless you’re told. The car builders assure you the 1942 models will run longer at lower operating and maintenance cost in the face of the fact that they are saving 81 percent of the nickel steel formerly required, 93 percent of the primary aluminum and 30 percent of secondary aluminum, 97 percent of the magnesium, 71 percent of the zinc, 29 percent of the chromium, and 74 percent of the tungsten. A ban on white sidewall tires, which after all were only appetizers for your pride and aesthetic taste, will save 6,000 tons of crude rubber a year, plus some zinc oxide.

When Henry Ford recently unveiled his plastic car, result of 12 years of research, he gave the world a glimpse of the automobile of tomorrow, its tough panels molded under hydraulic pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch from a recipe that calls for 70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp and sisal plus 30 percent resin binder. The only steel in the car is its tubular welded frame. The plastic car weighs a ton, 1,000 pounds lighter than a comparable steel car. Manufactures are already talking of a low-priced plastic car to test the public’s taste by 1943.

Plastic fuselages for aircraft have already had their flight tests, and the US Forest Products Laboratory has developed a plastic (phenol) impregnated wood to replace aluminum in planes. The Canadian air force is understood to have ordered a number of training planes built of plastics. Construction of great new shipyards and hundreds of giant airplane hangars has been accomplished at high speed by the use of prefabricated timbers instead of steel, the timber joints being held together by special connectors. Unlike minerals, wood is a replaceable material and there is no shortage in sight. The experiments going on at the Forest Products Laboratory forecast increasing use of plasticized wood. Utilizing mill run lumber and waste sawdust, plastic wood products of great strength, waterproof, can be molded into structural panels or an infinite variety of shapes.

Everywhere the spirit of economy in vital materials is the order of the day. It will hit you but it will probably not hurt. Alabama has withdrawn its aluminum tax tokens and substituted zinc, but what care you? Sound recording disks are being made of plate glass instead of aluminum. The Western Electric company is saving enough aluminum in telephone instrument manufacturing to make 150 airplanes, enough zinc to make nearly 12,000,000 three-inch cartridge cases. Your candy bars and chewing gum soon will come wrapped in waxed paper or Cellophane instead of tin and aluminum foil, and if war strikes at shipping in the Pacific your food may come in glass jars and plasticized paper containers instead of the traditional tin can. One engineering firm is working on a vegetable oil from sunflower seeds to pinch-hit for imported olive oil. In Canada you can’t get sliced bread, but it’s no great hardship to cut it yourself. Spices and flavors and drugs that used to cross the ocean to your table and your medicine cabinet are being replaced by home-grown products and synthetics. Department of Agriculture scientists are busy finding new uses for domestic crops: candy from starch products from sweet potatoes, a new reaper that may make pyrethrum daisies — used in insecticides — a profitable crop, polishing waxes from a green variety of cotton, plastics from Louisiana sugar cane.

Chemicals and inventors, metallurgists and research scientists and having a “field day” hunting substitutes, often finding materials that were better than the originals. In many cases the pinch-hitter will make the regular lineup, and from the sidelines you’ll watch a new world emerge.

Copyright © 1941, Popular Mechanics. All rights reserved.