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Lingerie Legends, Lost in Translation

by Bethany Halford
January 26, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 4

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

The patent for a brassiere that can do double duty as a pair of particulate-filtering FACEMASKS featured in the Nov. 3, 2008, Newscripts column prompted a number of readers to write in about the oddly parallel evolution of 3M's disposable dust masks and respirators.

Legend has it, 3M's protective breathing devices were originally conceived in the 1960s as molded, nonwoven brassiere cups. Then for some reason—some cite a more accessible market while others point to the decade's trend for bra burning—the molded cups were reborn as facemasks with little need to alter the product's design. This R&D lemons-to-lemonade lore is even repeated in Ernest Gundling's book "The 3M Way to Innovation: Balancing People & Profit."

When Newscripts went to verify the technology transfer tale with 3M, however, we learned that the company's official history of 3M's respirator technology makes no mention of unmentionables. It only notes that the facemask was born out of a collaboration between the company's Gift Wrap & Fabric division and its Retail Trades Tape division. While the former had developed a method for heat-molding nonwoven polyester fibers into three-dimensional forms—initially used to make stiffer ribbons—the latter was trying to come up with a disposable surgical facemask. The divisions got together and the rest is respirator history.

Digging into the patent literature, however, reveals evidence of the foundation applications. 3M's 1962 patent for the heat-molding method, U.S. Patent No. 3,064,329, outlines a brassiere as the principal product for the process, complete with a drawing. The patent makes mention of other possible molded garments, including shoulder pads, slippers, and a surgical facemask. This lends some support to our readers' stories, but also suggests the applications developed side-by-side.

Beyond the patent, no one at 3M could find any documents detailing a brassiere production project, however. So tales that the facemask was dreamed up because a scientist noticed the similarity in products' shapes and realized that the project could be salvaged from a bra-burning public might be making mountains out of molehills.

Attention journal editors: If you're going to put a FOREIGN LANGUAGE on the cover of your publication, it's a good idea to make sure you know what it actually says. The editors of MaxPlanckForschung, the quarterly publication of Germany's Max Planck Society, learned that lesson the hard way when the elegant-looking classical Chinese "poem" they chose to grace the cover of their China-focus issue turned out to be something considerably more lowbrow.

Graphic gaffe:
Credit: MaxPlanckForschung
Controversial cover.
Credit: MaxPlanckForschung
Controversial cover.

Instead of the fine verse of ancient Chinese poetry, the cover text was in fact an advertisement for a performance of "Beauties from the north who have a distinguished air of elegance and allure," and "Young housewives having figures that will turn you on." Victor M. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, translated the text in its entirety on the institution's "Language Log" blog.

When MPF's classical Chinese-speaking readers let the journal know the text's true contents, an apology quickly followed. "Prior to publication, the editorial office had consulted a German sinologist for a translation of the relevant text. The sinologist concluded that the text in question depicted classical Chinese characters in a noncontroversial context. To our sincere regret, however, it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a nonnative speaker," the apology stated.

"Language Log" commenters cried foul on this excuse, though. Mair spent weeks trying to track down what really happened. "Sheer ineptitude," he concludes was behind the gaffe. The artwork came from a German photo agency and was chosen purely for aesthetic reasons. A German "sinologin" did see the text, Mair verified, but this is different from what English speakers would call a sinologist, a philologist who specializes in Chinese. In fact, Mair discovered, the "sinologin" in question is a scientist who happens to know some Chinese.

Bethany Halford wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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