A Brief History of DayGlo

Photobos/iStock
Photobos/iStock

In 1933, a student at the University of California named Bob Switzer fell and hit his head. He had been removing boxes from a freight car for a summer job when he tumbled off the loading dock and was knocked unconscious.

Months later, Switzer awoke from a coma with blurred vision. To continue his recuperation, his doctor recommended avoiding bright light. His father, a pharmacist, turned his shop's basement into a darkroom for Bob's recovery.

That sparked Bob’s interest in ultraviolet, or black, light. Bob's younger brother, Joe, was a chemistry student and an amateur magician who was also interested in the black arts—playing with ultraviolet light and fluorescence (not sorcery) to create the illusion of objects appearing and disappearing on a darkened stage. Hoping to find chemical compounds that would glow in UV light, the brothers mixed the pharmacy’s supply of Murine eye wash with alcohol and white shellac, which created a fluorescent yellow substance under black lights.

The Switzer brothers’ breakthrough would eventually lead to their development of a dazzling fluorescent rainbow of pigments, which they trademarked as DayGlo colors. From traffic-cone orange to Pepto Bismol pink to yellow the shade of Mountain Dew, DayGlo’s colors have been used in industrial machinery, safety equipment, and psychedelic posters. The eye-popping palette has been saving lives and expanding consciousness for more than eight decades.

At first, Joe put the yellow dye to work in his magic show. In his signature act, a woman appeared on a darkened stage wearing a costume and headdress of fluorescent painted paper. Lit only by UV light, Joe would take the woman’s headdress off in one direction while the woman danced in the opposite direction, so her head appeared to separate from her body. With this trick, Joe won the prize at the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians in 1934 and created a fan base willing to spend $10 a pint for fluorescent paints. Bob and Joe thus established their first company, Fluor-S-Art Co.

By the summer of 1935 the Switzers had moved to Cleveland, where they worked for a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, creating dramatic special-effects scenes called “midnight paintings” for movie theater lobbies. The glowing tableaux appeared to transform when a black spotlight switched to a white light. This effect worked well in the darkness of theaters. But when the brothers tried to branch out to painting traditional billboards and store advertisements, regular white light sources faded the colors.

Bob and Joe continued to experiment, hoping to create a luminous paint that shined in daylight. In 1936 they created their first batch of pigments that reflected visible color from the spectrum, while also absorbing and transforming UV wavelengths of colors lower in the spectrum. As a result, viewers perceived a more intense, dazzling color. The first products were patented in 1937 as DayGlo fluorescents.

Initially, DayGlo colors were used for commercial advertisements. But when World War II erupted, the dyes found a new niche. The military spent $12 million on DayGlo dyes for safety applications like flags or painted signals that could be seen by airplanes 10,000 feet in the air, buoys that marked where underwater mines had been cleared, and suits worn by aircraft carrier crew to guide nighttime plane landings. Thanks to the colors’ use in safety fabrics, Joe and Bob Switzer became very rich.

During this time, the Switzers also developed black light penetrants, a type of pigment that reveals flaws in machinery when painted on the metal parts and exposed to UV light. Patented as Magnaglo and Zyglo, they became widely used by the U.S. Air Force for ensuring the integrity of airplane parts.

Tide laundry detergent bottles
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After World War II, Bob and Joe founded Switzer Brothers, Inc., later renamed the DayGlo Color Corporation. The company continued its production of flaw-revealing pigments, but now began to experiment with producing daylight fluorescent colors for consumer product packaging. In 1957, the company patented a process that combined fluorescent dye with a polymer, which gave the dye greater light stability for use as outdoor paints as well as in traditional printing applications.

The company convinced advertisers to adopt its super-fluorescent inks and papers, and in 1959, Proctor & Gamble opted to package its Tide laundry detergent, the first heavy-duty synthetic soap, in the Switzers' Blaze Orange hue. Soon, the DayGlo fad expanded from supermarket shelves to clothing, toys, and rock n’ roll posters in the 1960s. Pop artists like Peter Max and Andy Warhol incorporated psychedelic colors into trippy paintings and lithographs.

DayGlo eventually reached the zenith of pop culture relevance when the Beatles wore military-style suits in DayGlo colors on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

The Switzer brothers’ legacy shines on in their rainbow of trademark high-visibility tones—Saturn Yellow, Blaze Orange, Aurora Pink, Neon Red, Corona Magenta, Signal Green and many more—that are found on everything from food wrappers to public safety workers today.

In 2012, the American Chemical Society awarded DayGlo Color Corporation a national historic chemical landmark designation for the development of its pigments, citing the Switzer brothers' inventions as a “symbol of safety and protection that improve our daily lives.”

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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