Yesterday, September 10, marked the 114th birthday of a man who helped introduce more people to music in the 20th Century than perhaps any other person despite never picking up an instrument or plugging in a microphone. Unless you're a serious chemistry geek, you've probably never heard of Waldo Lonsbury Semon, but you've almost certainly enjoyed the fruits of his labor. Semon is the inventor of the ultra-versatile chemical compound polyvinyl chloride, more commonly referred to among audiophiles as vinyl.
At least, he's the inventor of the elastic, durable version of vinyl that's now used to make just about everything. When Semon first started experimenting with synthetic rubbers back in 1926, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) existed already, but it was considered useless. Fresh off earning his PhD at the University of Washington, Semon went to work for BFGoodrich developing a new kind adhesive rubber that could be used to coat metal.
Semon's early efforts using reclaimed crude rubber were a failure, so he moved on to synthetic compounds including PVC, which was basically considered interesting trash back then. Because this early vinyl was stiff and brittle at room temperature, Semon heated it in a solvent with a high boiling point. The resulting jelly was elastic after cooling, and the chemist quickly realized he was onto something.