Design icons: Teflon


Part of my regular series of icons for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. Teflon was first broadcast on 1st October. You can listen to the audio here.

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Occasionally a brand name becomes a noun – like a Hoover for any type of vacuum cleaner or a Biro for a ballpoint pen. And then there’s Teflon, which has become synonymous with anything that is non-stick.

Like a politician who shrugs off insults and is described as being Teflon coated. And while Teflon itself didn’t change the world of design, it’s been an important part of it for many decades.

As with so many things, it was discovered by accident. In the late 1930s, research scientist Roy Plunkett was investigating a gas to be used as a refrigerant. While experimenting with a compound called tetrafluoroethylene, he stored it overnight in metal cannisters, only to discover, the following morning, that the iron surface of the interior of the canister had acted as a catalyst and caused the gas to change into a powder, a process called polymerisation. Further research on this new substance, which was called polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, revealed that it had some remarkable characteristics, such as offering high heat resistance, was non-corrosive and, of course, had very low surface friction,. The subdivision of Dupont, who Plunkett worked for, trademarked the substance as Teflon and it went on to be used to coat pipes transferring liquids in atomic research and most notably on the nose cones of bombs, including the atomic bombs released on Japan that brought the horror of the Second World War to an end. It seemed destined to become a purely industrial product, used mainly as a coating for machinery.

And then in 1954 a Frenchman called Marc Grégoire used it to coat a frying pan, naming his company Tefal. It seemed like a miracle, the fact that food wouldn’t stick to the cooking surface and that the pans could be easily cleaned using only hot water. It was an almost futuristic addition to the battery of traditional French cookware, famous for its high quality. Sales rocketed when the American President’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, was photographed with one. Its invention was sometimes misattributed to the NASA space programme, thanks to its use in heat shields on the spacecraft as well as lining cargo holds and even coating the fibres of the spacesuits. But it fitted with the new spirit of the mid-century, joining  other man-made inventions like nylon and Velcro as a celebration of the cleverness that made life easy.

There was a downside, with toxic fumes given off during manufacture and when heated to higher than normal cooking temperatures which were possibly carcinogenic  and would cause various symptoms that became known as Teflon flu. The particular compound that caused the problem was eventually phased out in 2013. Teflon itself is used for much more than frying pans, of course, being a stain-resistant treatment for carpets, fabrics and paints, as a sterile coating for various medical instruments and devices such as catheters, and within more everyday products such as hair gel. The name itself has gone on to stand for any non-stick coating, and while some have tried to improve on it, using silicone and even crushed diamonds to make a durable non-stick surface for cookware, the original, without its toxic compound, appears never to have been bettered.

Design is often about the stuff we barely notice. Everything has a consequence. Like the way a non-stick pan changed our expectations in the kitchen.  And that’s a truth that you certainly can’t wipe easily away.

Categories: Design, Icons, radioTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments

  1. Who would have thought there could be so many stories behind everyday objects? Had no idea that a Frenchman was behind the innovation of Teflon in cookware — although not really surprised. Something about that French ‘système D’ way of thinking… On a personal note, I used to jokingly call my husband ‘Teflon Man’ because no matter how mad I got, nothing I said ever seemed to ‘stick’. 😅

    • Isn’t it right that the Americans see something they can coat bombs with and the French see a cooking variant… I wasn’t familiar with the term système D for lateral thinking so thanks for that!

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