The brilliantly colored fluorescent pigments used in everything from psychedelic posters to clothing, toys, and accessories were designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society during a ceremony at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland on Sept. 8. The pigments were invented by two brothers who founded the company DayGlo Color.
“Fluorescent pigments are a universally recognizable and truly iconic scientific development,” said ACS Board Chair William F. Carroll Jr., who presided over the ceremony. “Beyond being ubiquitous in our everyday lives, from construction cones to clothing, fluorescent colors are a symbol of safety and protection that improve our daily lives. Today, construction workers, firefighters, crossing guards, and countless others are safer and more visible because they wear brilliant, fluorescing colors.”
During the ceremony, Carroll presented Stephen C. Jackson, president of DayGlo Color, with a commemorative plaque honoring the development of DayGlo fluorescent pigments.
“The history of fluorescent pigments is a wonderful tale of discovery and development and a prime example of how the disciplines of chemistry and engineering can be applied to create an entirely new class of material,” Jackson said when accepting the award.
In 1933, two enterprising teenage brothers, Robert C. and Joseph L. Switzer, found a way to turn naturally fluorescing organic compounds into paint by combining the materials with a natural polymer, shellac. They used this experimental paint to design costumes for their amateur magic shows. The costumes glowed on stage under a black light, which emits ultraviolet light.
The brothers soon realized the widespread potential of their fluorescent paint. They continued to improve their products, developing “daylight fluorescents” in the 1940s. These pigments, which fluoresce in daylight, became known as DayGlo fluorescents. The brothers founded Switzer Brothers Inc., in Cleveland, in 1946. They renamed the company DayGlo Color in 1969.
World War II led to new applications of fluorescent technology. These included fluorescent fabric panels used by troops in North Africa to identify themselves to Allied aircraft as friendly and fluorescing materials that allowed Allied forces to use aircraft carriers at night, which gave them an advantage over the Japanese military. Growth in the use of fluorescent colors for marketing and packaging took off after the war. The first big break in packaging came in 1959 in an application that’s still recognized by its DayGlo colors: Tide detergent.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Chemical Landmarks program, which ACS initiated in 1992 to enhance public appreciation for the contributions of the chemical sciences to modern life in the U.S. and to encourage a sense of pride in the practitioners of those sciences.
The program has awarded landmark status to 70 places, discoveries, and achievements in the history of chemical science and technology. Other advances recognized through this program have included the world’s first synthetic plastic, the discovery of penicillin, and the development of Tide laundry detergent. For more information about the program, visit www.acs.org/landmarks.