By finding a way to stabilize the polymers used to coat communications cable, Field Winslow and his Bell Labs colleagues Lincoln Hawkins and Vincent Lanza helped make universal telephone service possible. In addition, the work enriched scientists’ understanding of the polyolefin stabilization process.
Until the 1940s, a lead-based coating was used to insulate telephone cables. The lead coating was expensive, and it was also too heavy to use in the multi-cable conduits needed to serve millions of people. Plastic coatings were tried, but quickly became brittle and would disintegrate when exposed to the elements. The team found a way to stabilize polyethylene and created a plastic cable insulation that could withstand changes in temperature and other environmental factors. The new coating greatly reduced the costs of building and maintaining modern telephone systems, and the use of lead, an environmental toxin, was eliminated.
Winslow was born in West Rutland, Vermont and completed his undergraduate studies at Middlebury College. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell, and then worked on the Manhattan Project where he helped develop early fluoropolymers. He joined Bells Labs in 1945, becoming head of Polymer R&D and Organic Chemistry R&D. He was also seen as an expert in macromolecular science, serving as a founder of the American Chemical Society’s Macromolecules publication.