• Doug Neckers

Why Science Matters

I started the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University in 1985. No one had heard the phrase before, for one simple reason: I invented it. It all started when I was consulting for a division of the former Mead Paper Co. in Chillicothe, Ohio and met a former employee of the Polaroid Corporation with an idea.


When you say “Polaroid,” some of us remember the Polaroid Land camera that provided an “instant” print in about two minutes.


That was seen as very exciting back in the 1960s, but even bigger changes lay ahead. One who glimpsed the future was Dick Wright, a technician at Polaroid who had been living in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass. Dick didn’t think that was a great place to raise kids so he quit and moved his family to Chillecothe.


This wasn’t quite the same as crossing the ocean in the Mayflower, but in terms of culture shock, it may have been close.


If you are of a certain age, you may also remember carbon paper. My late wife Sue typed my Ph.D dissertation in 1963, using carbon paper to produce four copies, an original and three more separated by three sheets of a thin paper on which carbon derived from chimney sweepings had been deposited.


What neither of us realized that the essence of what became modern printing ink would stem in part from my thesis. In it, I investigated two compounds that used light to turn some materials from liquids to solids, one of which was used for years to print the shiny cover of National Geographic.


Mead in the 1980s was a pioneer in the use of a fascinating new system that used tiny capsules containing dyes that were themselves colorless, but which, when broken, would deposit material that would change color on paper’s surface.


That meant carbon paper would be replaced by paper printed by tiny capsules. Every fast-food joint uses this concept today. This carbonless technology has become so cheap that it’s an easy way for a receipt to be produced whether the customer wants one or not.


But back to Dick Wright, who had ended up in Chillicothe, working for Mead. There, he met an inventor who discovered that if he put the right stuff in those microcapsules, and shown imaged light on them, the capsules would harden, and where light didn’t hit, colored dye would form at that spot on the paper.

Voila! Suddenly, he had a way of creating a photo with resolution as high as a camera would allow and the size of the microcapsules could represent. When further refinements used digital light sources rather than lamps filtered through negatives, Dick Wright and his associates -- several of whom were my former students -- were able to make images of sterling quality without all that development and mess.


Nobody knew it yet, but this discovery helped doom Polaroid and Kodak. Say good-bye to the analog world and hello to the digital age!


About the same time I was meeting Wright in Chillicothe, some at Bowling Green State University were talking about a guy named Harold McMaster who knew we were building a new science building and wanted to contribute money to help us equip it.


After a lunch or two with Harold and his dear wife, Helen, the McMasters made the first of several gifts to what became the Center for Photochemical Sciences at BGSU.


But not only had I gained an ally, I had found a new and like-minded friend. Harold and I spent a lot of time talking about what I thought would be a potential business opportunity for some of his ideas.


He’d then transition to his own fascination -- photovoltaic energy conversion. I remember taking some of my first 3D prints of medical data and showing him what I thought could become a new way to manufacture medical replacement parts.


McMaster, a man who had more than 100 patents, was spending a lot of his own money then on what became eventually First Solar. But when we asked him about supporting my idea, he did so too.


Twenty years later it was my sincere pleasure to take his widow a check from the profits from the sale of the company.


Harold McMaster was a man ahead of his time. Today, if you drive along State Route 795 from Perrysburg to I-280, you can see two separate million-square foot plants making photovoltaic solar energy converters on glass plates; a third will be built soon.


Drive to Lemoyne Road, and Form Labs Ohio is there. They are one of the largest manufacturers of resins for 3D printing in America. I should know; I started the business, which I later sold. When I had a tooth repaired on a Saturday morning recently, my dentist cured the repair resin with UV – ultraviolet -- light.


I told him, “Hey, that’s where I came in!


Harold McMaster and I remained close till his death in 2003. I remember giving him some models of one of the Toledo Museum of Art’s mummies about three weeks before he passed away.


Roger Berkowitz, the director of the museum, and his wife Rhoda, a law professor, were on hand too. Roger asked innocently, “what are those?” Within a year they were on display in his Museum.


And that’s just the beginning of the story.


What I saw a glimmer of in Chillicothe years ago is today employing a lot of people I this area --and soon will employ more, all thanks to some maverick inventors and a few far-seeing others who managed to get together here in the 1980’s.

***

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences; He is also past chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. Read his work at 3dscienceblog.com


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash


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Science in 3D

With Dr. Doug Neckers

Examining the intersections of politics, medicine, and science impacting our nation