Chardonnet, Hilaire (1839-1924) was a French chemist and physiologist who invented a technique for extruding cellulose nitrate into a manufactured fiber, which became known as rayon. The fiber was first commercially produced in the United States in 1910. Today, rayon is used to make clothing, draperies, and upholstery.
Chardonnet became interested in producing an artificial fiber while studying silkworms. Although the suggestion of a manmade fiber dates back to the 1600's, Chardonnet was the first person to successfully create a textile from one. When Chardonnet developed his synthetic fiber in the 1880's, he called it artificial silk. In 1924, the United States Department of Commerce changed the name to rayon, because the sheen of the fabric was similar to the sun's rays. In addition to artificial silk, Chardonnet also designed an aviation instrument that measures solar radiation. In addition, he studied how organisms absorb ultraviolet light. Other areas where he contributed include telephony, understanding how the eyes of birds work, and the manufacturing of guncotton.
Chardonnet came from a noble family. He studied civil engineering at the École Polytechnique in Paris and later received an appointment as an engineer at the École des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Chardonnet learned about silk while working as an assistant to Louis Pasteur, a French chemist. Pasteur was investigating pebrine, a disease that destroys silkworms, in hopes of helping the silk industry. A few years earlier, in the 1860's, he had saved the wine industry by discovering how to prevent wine from turning bitter. Pasteur had learned that microbes, or germs, were responsible for the bitterness and he reasoned that applied heat, or pasteurization, could control the microbes and thus avert the problem.
In 1865, Pasteur turned his attention to the diseases of silkworms. While other animals, such as spiders, can spin silk, it is the silkworm that produces a substance that can be woven into cloth. Silkworms are raised on commercial farms and fed a diet of mulberry leaves. After the silkworm has grown, it spins a cocoon composed of long, fine threads. These threads are unwound before being processed and dyed. The end result is a strong, natural fiber that is typically used in clothing, upholstery, and curtains. Silk was first discovered in China and officials there scrupulously guarded the secret of silkworms until about A.D. 550. In the 1500's, silk weaving was introduced in France and the country soon rivaled Italy as the silk center of the West. But with the spreading silkworm disease, the French silk industry faced collapse.
A few years after starting his research, Pasteur identified the germ responsible for pebrine. This discovery allowed silk growers to rid the silkworm nurseries of the disease-carrying microbes. Chardonnet, however, considered another solution to the silkworm problem. For six years, from 1878 to 1884, he experimented with creating a substitute for silk. In 1884, he took out a patent and entered his invention at the 1889 Paris Exposition, where it won the Grand Prix. He began manufacturing artificial silk in the first of two factories, Société de la Soie de Chardonnet, in Besan$cEon in 1889. Five years later, he opened his second factory in Sarvar, Hungary.
Rayon is made of cellulose, a material found in the cell walls of plants. In the modern production of rayon, the cellulose is chemically treated to form a compound, which undergoes a process known as stretch spinning. In spinning, the compound is forced through a spinnerette. a nozzle-like device with tiny holes in it. The resulting filaments are then elongated and twisted to create a yarn. The cellulose in rayon most commonly comes from wood pulp, although in the past it was produced from cotton linters. For his artificial silk, Chardonnet used the pulp of mulberry leaves and prepared a nitrocellulose compound by mixing the pulp with nitric and sulfuric acids. Using this method, Chardonnet's early attempts created a highly flammable material, but over time, he corrected this problem. His method is no longer in use commercially and has been replaced with a number of other techniques. The viscose process, which was developed around 1900, is now the most common commercial method.
Initially, people disliked rayon because it was too shiny and difficult to clean. Over the years, the fabric has been improved and is now known as an absorbent fabric that dyes easily. Generally, most rayon fabrics need to be dry-cleaned. Before Chardonnet's invention, textiles were made directly from plant and animal fibers, such as wool, cotton, silk, and jute. Today, in addition to rayon, manufactured fibers are made from petrochemicals, glass, and metals. Rayon has many uses, including wearing apparel, home furnishings, and industrial products.