By Kent Larsen
How a Mormon Researcher Started the Disposable Diaper Revolution
NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- A recent article in the New Yorker tells the
story of how a Mormon researcher for Johnson and Johnson started a
revolution in disposable diapers, making them at once smaller, drier
and better. And, along the way, the diaper industry discovered the
virtues of having a small, compact product. But, the article
observes, in the end the researcher, Carlyle Harmon, didn't get much
credit for his invention, and even his obituary, in the Deseret News
in 1997, focused mainly on his service to the LDS Church and ignored
his ground-breaking discovery.
Born in 1905, Harmon earned a string of degrees from Stanford
University, cumulating with a Ph.D. in Engineering in 1930. He then
went to work for Wisconsin's Marathon Paper Co., where he worked for
more than a decade before joining Johnson and Johnson in 1947. There,
during a 23-year career, Harmon became head of fabrics research, and
in the mid 1960s, made the discovery that changed diapers forever.
Before Harmon's discovery, disposable diapers (introduced in 1957 by
Proctor and Gamble based on work of their scientist, Victor Mills)
were nothing more than layers of tissue paper between sheets of
rayon, in a plastic cover. With enough pressure, the paper would give
up the water it absorbed, leaving the baby wet and giving the baby
Harmon discovered that a peculiar polymer which could absorb up to
three hundred times its weight in water, could be placed between
sheets of nylon, and would absorb all the baby's waste and keep it
dry. In 1966 he filed for a patent on the material, only to discover
that a competing scientist at Dow Chemical, Billy Gene Harper, had
filed for essentially the same patent at the same time. The patents
protected the invention for 17 years.
The disposable diaper is a low margin product -- producers don't make
a lot of money on each diaper. And, because the purchasers of diapers
are young parents, who purchase many diapers during their child's
first few years, producers couldn't raise the price much. These low
margins, combined with 17 years of protection kept Harmon's
innovation from really hitting diapers until the mid 1980s.
But when it was finally used, it made a big difference very quickly.
In the space of just a few years, the size of diapers dropped by
half. Within another 10 years they were one-third smaller again. And
experts expect that they will get smaller still in the next few
years. And, in the process, parents have become much happier with the
diapers because their children are drier and experience fewer rashes.
But the industry soon realized that this was just part of the
benefit. When diaper manufacturers shipped diapers to stores before
Harmon's innovation, they couldn't fit enough diapers into a truck.
Under Federal law, tractor-trailers can't carry any more than 80,000
pounds, so shippers try to get as much into that 80,000 pounds as
possible. But diapers were so bulky that no single truck would come
close to reaching that limit, making the cost of shipping each diaper
higher than you would expect for its weight. Making the diaper
smaller made it possible to get 80,000 pounds of diapers into a
single truck, and reduced shipping costs. This in turn made it easier
to ship diapers longer distances, allowing manufacturers to
concentrate their operations among fewer plants. Kimberly-Clark, for
example, reduced its diaper manufacturing plants from eight to five.
The smaller diaper also made a difference in stores. Shelf space is
at a premium in retail stores, and distributors and manufacturers are
often fighting for space -- after all, if you aren't even on the
shelf, your product won't sell, and if you have more shelf space, the
consumer is more likely to see you. The smaller diaper made it easier
for the store to stock multiple brands of diapers with multiple
configurations and multiple sizes. And, because the diaper is
smaller, more fit on a shelf, meaning the store is out of stock on
them less often. The change even put diapers into stores where they
weren't before -- such as convenience stores -- because they weren't
as bulky as they once were.
In all, the change was revolutionary for the industry, "We cut the
cost of trucking in half," says Ralph Drayer, who was in charge of
logistics for Procter &Gamble for many years. "We cut the cost of
storage in half. We cut handling in half, and we cut the cost of the
store shelf in half, which is probably the most expensive space in
the whole chain." In the space of a few years, costs dropped
dramatically, the product was better and consumer had more choices,
all because of Harmon's improvement in the most basic part of a
But by the time the revolution arrived, Harmon was no longer with
Johnson and Johnson. He retired in 1970, with his name on 39 patents.
He worked at BYU for a few years in the early 1970s before founding,
in 1973, the Eyring Research Institute, which developed a computer
for the Minuteman missile, flight simulators, communications
equipment and coal gasification projects. He sold Eyring Research in
But when Harmon died in 1997, at the age of 92, the importance of his
contribution was widely ignored. While the inventor who gave the
world the original, imperfect disposable diaper, Victor Mills, was
hailed in the New York Times as "the father of disposable diapers" in
an obituary, Harmon's obituary was just 400 words in the Deseret News
-- mainly stressing his contribution to the LDS Church.
"We tend to credit those who create an idea, not those who perfect
it," says the New Yorker in conclusion, "forgetting that it is often
only in the perfection of an idea that true progress occurs. . . .
The paper diaper changed parenting. But a diaper that could hold four
insults without leakage, keep a baby's skin dry, clear [waste] in
twenty seconds flat, and would nearly always be in stock, even if you
arrived at the supermarket at eight o'clock in the evening-and that
would keep getting better at all those things, year in and year
out-was another thing altogether. This was more than a good idea.
This was something like perfection."
Smaller; The disposable diaper and the meaning of progress.
The New Yorker 26Nov01 P2
Stanford Magazine Nov97 P2