Louis Frank Rahm
Material, Process, Machinery
Teacher, writer, authority on the fundamentals of plastics technology. Founded the graduate level Plastics Engineering program at Princeton University, the first in this country. Was chairman, SPE's Education Committee. Instrumental in establishing Plastics Institute of America at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Industrially, it seemed like a neat, understandable world of rubber, celluloid, and Bakelite when I first made contact in 1921 as a designer of processing equipment. Next, with the establishment of the Plastics Program at Princeton in 1945, I was pleased to inform the first class that the industry had grown to the phenomenal size of 450,000 metric tons. On my retirement in 1964, this had reached a plastronomic 6,000,000 tons. Short of absolute doomsday, nothing will slow the flood except market saturation or lack of basic materials.
It seems quite possible that the domestic market may become saturated during the next generation, in spite of increased population and the large housing market still to be developed. This will still leave an enormous replacement demand even without further growth. But since by that time our eager efforts to export technology to underdeveloped countries should breed enough low-cost competition at home and elimination of export trade, this indicates a real belt-tightening operation.
As to source materials, no one can foresee what new polymers will develop. In view of the value of petroleum for energy, the polyolefins will be obliged to forego some of their present exuberance. As for regenerative sources, our old friend cellulose will always be with us, but if population makes living room scarce, man may be obliged to utilize all arable land for foodstuffs and move himself to otherwise useless terrain. Even this would not be an innovation, since historically it was practiced in pre-Inca Peru several thousand years ago. However, the ultimate burrowing into mother earth for shelter and warmth, or returning to the sea from which man evolved will not concern me, I hope. But as for the plastics materials in such a twilight society, you may be sure it will go to glory with them but not because of them.
In regard to the education situation, it may be observed that colloidal chemistry died, like the dodo. But the phoenix that rose from the ashes soars on the wings of high polymers, which directly or dependently occupy 75% of the chemists and chemical engineers of the country. An enviable standard in polymer science was established, something of a "benchmark by Herman Mark," in 1945. No one need question the adequacy of education in polymer science or its adaptability to the future.
By contrast, "plastics engineering" comes in all categories, from polymer chemistry to vocational training.
The Princeton Plastics Program of 1945 had unforeseen and surprising consequences.
First reaction was the establishment of Education Committees by SPE and SPI. SPE evolved a program to recommend to schools interested in entering into this new field. SPI followed suit. There were few takers. Then an SPE Ad Hoc Committee surveyed some 75 colleges to find a congenial climate for a Plastics Institute of America. It recommended Stevens Institute to the Society, which then sponsored PIA and lent it financial support during its very painful early struggle for survival and development, and final incorporation in 1961. This unexpected success stimulated further SPE action in establishing the Plastics Education Foundation, which now provides fellowships at various schools and has stimulated interest and support from the education committees of the various Society sections.
Thus the modest beginning at conservative old Princeton in 1945 unexpectedly sent out ripples of various sizes in all directions. Today, no engineering department can any longer ignore this most active field of engineering.
As a machine designer in 1921, I did not have the answers to the baffling mysteries of rheology. I still haven't, but since no one else has, it seems that there are still things to learn in spite of many advances to date. And if my belligerent early efforts have even unexpectedly helped this development for the benefit of the plastics industry, I hope I may be excused for some feeling of satisfaction and paternalism toward some 80 graduates devoted to studying the life and habits of polymers.