© John Heiney 2007

We need not be reminded of the well-known experimenters/innovators whom free-flyers respect, honor and celebrate for their contributions to our sport. The names of Lillienthal, Chanute, the Wrights, Rogallo, Dickenson and Jalbert are in our thoughts and holidays annually if not more often.

But there is one name that cries out to be included among the revered forefathers of our beloved sporting activity. It is the name of a man without whose efforts things might be very different today.

In the 1930s a young research chemist named Wallace Hume Carothers (born April 27, 1896) worked his way up to be Director of Research at Dupont. He is credited with the creation of the fiber we know as nylon. Nylon is the perfect material for supporting the human body because of its strength and elasticity (softening impact loads) not to mention its long life and low cost. I am guessing that every aircraft and space vehicle (not to mention ground vehicle) uses nylon at the interface between human life and cold, hard machine.

True, Wallace was not a pilot and probably did not give a damn about flying. He was just trying to invent a material from which to make women’s stockings. The silk worms were having trouble meeting the production demands of a growing human population.

I believe that if accessible free-flight had existed in Carothers’ time it might have been his salvation, for Wallace suffered from depression. His depression was so bad that he carried a cyanide capsule in his pocket every day of his adult life just in case the depression became unbearable. He was a true believer in chemistry.

Had he been able to discover the spirit-lifting therapy of free-flight, he might have been able to keep that capsule in his pocket. Sadly, on April 29, 1937 he reached into his pocket looking for the relief that he knew his closest companion for 15 years would bring. He did not live to see the far-reaching ramifications of his humble discovery.

So the next time you are manically skying-out, secure in that wonderful harness you trust with your life year after year, give some thought to Wallace, who might have been happy had he known.


First published in June 2008 Hang Gliding & Paragliding Magazine