The whole thing started by accident. In 1898, German chemist Hans von Pechmann heated diazomethane. It left a waxy residue which his colleagues dubbed “polymethylene”. For years nothing came of his discovery. Then in 1933, two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett combined ethylene and benzaldehyde under extremely high pressure and produced that same waxy plastic. It was easily molded and looked commercially promising. The trick was reproducing the process, as their equipment sprung a leak during pressurization, skewing results. Another chemist, Michael Perrin, finally reproduced the experiment in 1935. Perrin’s work became the basis for commercial production of “polyethylene”.
In 1939 polyethylene replaced metal in British radar components. This innovation enabled severely outnumbered Allied planes to carry on-board radar, giving them an advantage over Axis aircraft. After the war, chemists attempted to replace high pressure with chemical catalysts. In 1951, Americans Robert Banks and J. Paul Hogan, added chromium trioxide. It worked alright, but try as they might, they couldn’t get uniform quality. Tons of off-spec “Marlex” pellets filled Phillip’s Petroleum warehouses. So the product was laid aside again.
Backtrack a bit to 1948. Richard Knerr and Arthur Mellin started a slingshot company in their garage. These powerful little numbers tossed chunks of meat into the air to train falcons. As one might suspect, business was slow. That is, until one of the partners went on a sales trip to Australia. There he observed kids exercising in a school playground with wooden hoops. In 1958 Knerr and Mellin approached Phillip’s about purchasing their plastic. Phillip’s was delighted to get the stuff off their hands.
That odd marriage was a rousing hit. The former slingshot company,“Wham-O”, sold twenty million hula hoops in six months.