Otto Röhm must have been an inquisitive person with a great thirst for knowledge. How else can it be explained that he played a part in more than 70 inventions over the course of his life? And the most successful of them all: PLEXIGLAS®. However, the development of the material demanded considerable patience and courage.
Thirst for knowledge and ingenuity
Otto Karl Julius Röhm was born on March 14, 1876 in the town of Öhringen in the Kingdom of Württemberg (now Baden Württemberg). After completing school in 1891 at the age of 15, he took on an apprenticeship as a pharmacy assistant. His apprenticeship was tough, with working hours from 7 am to 10 pm and hardly any days off. Upon completing his training, Otto Röhm served as an assistant at various pharmacies for three years. He continued his pharmacy studies after his time as an assistant and graduated as a Pharmacist in 1899. His pharmaceutical license made it possible for him to begin his long-awaited Chemistry degree at the University of Tübingen. He earned his doctorate in 1901. The topic of his dissertation, “Polymerization products from acrylic acid” would later prove to be decisive for the future of his company, Röhm & Haas.
From enzymes to PLEXIGLAS®
With his comprehensive training – after all, Otto Röhm was now both a pharmacist and a chemist – he had the best basis for developing a groundbreaking material, such as PLEXIGLAS®. In the early part of the 20th century, a time in which Germany was developing into one of the largest industrial nations in the world, the multitalented Otto Röhm first turned to a production sector which had not yet benefited from industrialization, namely tanneries. He was the first chemist to successfully isolate enzymes and subsequently develop a new staining process for the leather industry. His product, OROPON®, made the staining process more hygienic with higher quality results. Until then, tanners used animal excrement as part of the tanning process. The demand for OROPON® was so great that Röhm and his business partner, Otto Haas, founded the Röhm & Haas company in 1907.
Results from research conducted on enzymes were not only applied in the leather and textile industries, but were also used in other areas: Otto Röhm and his team developed laundry detergents, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products for treating wounds and promoting digestion. The enzymes were also used in the production of baked goods and fruit juices.
Otto Röhm as a manager
Otto Röhm as a manager, seen here in 1937 with his first and 1,000th employee, was generally known for his punctuality and his thriftiness. In the early years, he and his employees walked to work at the factory. The story is often told that in order to arrive at the factory on time, he would walk twice as quickly as usual. The employees joined in so that it was not unusual to see an entire procession of factory workers walking behind their boss.
The path to plastics research
Once his existing business was running successfully, Otto Röhm turned his attention to plastics research in 1912. No doubt a risky undertaking. After all, this area had nothing to do with his company’s previous business, while being extremely costly and offering little prospect of quick utilization. A realignment of the business in this magnitude demanded considerable courage and determination from Röhm – which was reflected during the day-to-day work at Röhm & Haas. Word has it, that the company founder visited the laboratories and plants on a daily basis, spoke to the chemists and stayed in touch with the state of affairs. “I don’t believe anything that I haven’t tried for myself,” was a frequently used phrase by him.
Walter Bauer joined Röhm & Haas as a chemist in 1918 at a time when acrylate chemistry was still in its infancy. As the head of the laboratory, he had already played a crucial role in the development of the safety glass, LUGLAS®, the company’s first plastics application. His research on PLEXIGLAS® was equally groundbreaking: He and his team developed a casting technique for PLEXIGLAS® sheets and the manufacturing process for PLEXIGLAS® tubes using centrifugal polymerization.
PLEXIGLAS® – an accidental discovery
After some success with acrylates, Otto Röhm turned to methacrylates at the end of the 1920s. Walter Bauer, laboratory head at the time, analyzed the suitability of methacrylate as laminated glass. Bauer’s research discovered that polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is a solid and transparent material – very much the opposite to the previously research acrylates. When Otto Röhm received the first sample of PMMA, he decided to focus heavily on the research into this material. The research team was finally able to successfully control the polymerization of the raw material between conventional glass panes: The result was thin acrylic glass panes which Röhm registered under the brand PLEXIGLAS® in 1933.