It is hard to imagine life today without the multitudinous ways in which silicone is employed, from shampoo to contact lenses to gaskets in aero-engines. Frederic Stanley Kipping (1863-1949) from Lancashire was the first chemist to fully investigate and experiment with the synthesis of silicone compounds and he coined the name ‘silicone’ in 1904. His work in this field lasted from 1901 to his retirement in 1936 and he published 57 papers on it.
The availability of silicone as a rubber substitute was crucial in WW2. In reply to a tribute in 1945 that he and Churchill had ‘won the War’, he famously quipped “Why bring Churchill into it?”! No doubt he would have been just as proud to know that one of the first man-made materials landing on the Moon in 1969 was destined to be the silicone sole of Neil Armstrong’s boot.
With his brother-in-law, the equally eminent chemist William Henry Perkin Jnr. (1860-1929), Kipping wrote ‘Organic Chemistry’ (1894), a classic textbook for six decades. Yet it is his pioneering work on organic/inorganic silicon polymers at the University of Nottingham that has revolutionised industry, medicine, computing, aerospace technology and many other areas of life. Silicone’s amazingly versatile properties place it high in the factors propelling modern civilisation.
(Image of silicone baking tray and oven mitt: pixy.org / CC0)