The Inventor: Otto Röhm

Röhm’s Early Years

Otto Karl Julius Röhm was born in the Kingdom of Wurttemberg (now known as Baden Württemberg) on March 14th 1876. In 1891, at the age of 15, he had completed his studies and started an apprenticeship as a pharmacy assistant. He was able to complete his pharmacy degree in 1899. He then attended the University of Tübingen two years later, where he obtained his doctorate in chemistry. The topic of his dissertation was "Polymerization products from acrylic acid." From this study, he was convinced that commercially viable applications were possible with this material. Although his topic of dissertation would deem useful in his further research (which led to the discovery of our sheet material), he spent most of his early years driven to the area of leather production. 

Both a chemist and pharmacist, he was employed by the Urban Gasworks in Gaisburg, located in a district of Stuttgart, Germany. Here, he analyzed foul-smelling gas water caused by ammonia and hydrogen sulfide which reminded him of the tanneries he had visited that had a very similar foul smell. A random visit with a tannery chemist, leading him to recognize the similarities in smells, allowed him the opportunity to create a product that would remove animal excrement from the bating process using other means that could do the same job. He called his first invention OROPON®. The name derived from his initials (OR) and the Greek word for juice (OPOS), which combined translated to “Juice of Otto Röhm.”

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Otto Röhm in his younger years.


The Start of Röhm & Haas

Dissatisfied with his job at Urban Gasworks and with the potential of success for this new invention, he convinced his banker friend, Otto Haas, to move back to Germany from America so they could see where things could go. The pair founded their partnership and named it Röhm & Haas in September of 1907. The intended purpose of the company was the “exploitation of bait invented by the co-partner Röhm for tannery purposes, as well as retail trade with chemical products.” By acquiring enzymes which were extracted directly from the pancreases of slaughter cattle, the bating process was finally able to be controlled and dangerous pathogens weren’t allowed to rise when using OROPON®. Today, this company would have been considered a biotech enterprise because it was practicing “biotechnology” for commercial use.

Otto Haas was Röhm's business partner who grew intrigued by the whole production process although it was all very new to him coming from a banker background. However, Haas became valuable as he focused on his true field within the company Röhm and himself had founded. He was well experienced in financial affairs which helped Röhm and his two hired chemists get their product out to the masses where they would start to see a rise to their success.

It wasn’t long after the launch of OROPON® that Röhm and his growing team of chemists started diving into creating new products. KOREON®, LIPON® and ELGON® (all non-enzymatic leather additives) were created to help with the economic efficiency and dangerous environmental toxins that were formally apart of leather production. DEGOMMA S® was created for the silk manufacturing process and BURNUS® was created to help housewives have an easier washing procedure where they didn’t have to scrub their clothes clean for hours.

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The head office of Röhm and Haas in 1907. Dr. Otto Röhm is in the doorway on the left and Otto Haas is in the right hand window on the second floor.


The Shift to the Plastics Industry

It wasn't until 1912, once Röhm & Haas' business was showing to be successful, that Röhm turned his attention to the plastics industry. This risky but worthy undertaking required courage and determination for at the time it was a completely different direction from his previous endeavors and had little prospect for becoming commercially accepted despite his impeding inclinations. Röhm, intrigued by the science he studied for his dissertation, took the plunge with hope for success.

The question posed by Röhm’s old professor kick-started his journey back into the field that truly fascinated him. The question Röhm wanted to answer was, "how could there be a chemical reaction between certain unsaturated compounds (what we call monomers today) and saturated polymeric compounds?" Röhm decided to analyze the chemical reaction and research acrylic acid. One not satisfied with anything he hadn't tried for himself, he continued to carry out the work to develop the most cost-effective way to manufacture such material. He called this new research “rubber work.”

There were many years where Röhm had to tap into his self-discipline and keep going as obstacles arose. He experienced countless setbacks that were expensive yet unsuccessful in his research. He also endured numerous trials such as a draft into the military along with rival businesses trying to take a stab at his profits. Röhm was vigilant in visiting the laboratories and plants on an almost daily basis looking after the chemists and making sure there was progress being made. He was dedicated to his field of study and didn't give up on the potential he strongly believed this research held.

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The plastics laboratory on the first floor of the old laboratory building in 1937 where the first plastics were created.


A Great Discovery

With the help of Walter Bauer, a new chemist on the scene, research showed that poly(methyl methacrylate) is a solid and transparent material. About 20 years after Röhm decided to venture into the world of plastics, his team was finally able to control the polymerization of the raw material between conventional glass panes. This produced thin acrylic glass panes which Röhm registered under the brand PLEXIGLAS® in 1933.

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Chemist, Walter Bauer, joined Röhm & Haas in 1918 during the time when acrylate chemistry was still in its infancy. He was essential in the groundbreaking development of PLEXIGLAS®.