Robert Gore, Inventor of Gore-Tex, Is Dead at 83

Failed experiments with a polymer led him to create the breathable, waterproof material used in numerous applications, including ski jackets and medical implants.

Rober Gore re-enacting how he discovered the versatile material known as Gore-Tex. His discovery involved stretching polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon.  
Rober Gore re-enacting how he discovered the versatile material known as Gore-Tex. His discovery involved stretching polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon.  Credit...via W.L. Gore & Associates Inc.
Steven Kurutz

Robert Gore, a chemical engineer whose failed lab experiments with a polymer led unwittingly to the invention of Gore-Tex, the versatile, waterproof material used in ski jackets, aortic stent grafts and spacesuits, died on Sept. 17 at his vacation home in Cecil County, Md. He was 83.

The cause was cancer, according to a statement released by his family.

Mr. Gore’s billion-dollar invention was born out of failure and frustration. In 1969, as head of research and development for W.L. Gore & Associates, the manufacturing company founded by his parents, he was tasked with creating an inexpensive form of plumber’s tape for a client. The tape was made from polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, known commonly by the brand name Teflon.

Mr. Gore sought to make more efficient use of the material by stretching it, not unlike Silly Putty. But each time he heated and stretched a rod of PTFE in his lab, it broke in two.

“Everything I seemed to do worked worse than what we were already doing,” he told the Science History Institute in a short film. “So I decided to give one of these rods a huge stretch, fast — a jerk. I gave it a huge jerk and it stretched 1,000 percent. I was stunned.”

Twelve years earlier, as a college student working with his father, W.L. Gore, a former chemist for DuPont turned entrepreneur, Mr. Gore had figured out a way to use PTFE to coat the copper wires found in early computers. The innovation resulted in a contract with IBM and kick-started the family business.

But the expanded form of PTFE he created, known as ePTFE, turned out to be a fortune-making discovery. The microporous material, which the company patented and trademarked as Gore-Tex, had exceptional qualities and myriad uses.

One of the earliest and most ubiquitous is as a laminate layer in fabric. It allows perspiration to escape but prevents water droplets from entering, making it ideal for camping equipment, ski wear and other outdoor apparel.

ImageNew uses for Gore-Tex are still being discovered.  A concept jacket made from the material was shown at Milan Design Week in 2016.
New uses for Gore-Tex are still being discovered.  A concept jacket made from the material was shown at Milan Design Week in 2016.Credit...Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images for Gore-Tex

The first commercial product to use Gore-Tex, in 1976, was a camping tent. By the mid-’80s, L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer and other clothing brands were selling Gore-Tex jackets, raincoats and parkas, which were worn by both rugged mountaineers and fashionable Manhattanites.

Mr. Gore became president and chief executive of W.L. Gore & Associates in 1976 and pursued new applications for his invention. He would stand in a rainstorm to check garments and footwear for waterproofness, and he filled his home with prototypes. He called the company’s 800 numbers to make sure the customer service was up to par.

“Bob was the guy who made things happen,” Bret Snyder, the chairman of W.L. Gore & Associates and Mr. Gore’s nephew, said in a phone interview. “He had a passion not just for the theoretical, but how the products worked in customers’ hands.”

Robert Walton Gore was born on April 15, 1937, in Salt Lake City. When his father, known as Bill, was hired by DuPont after World War II, the family moved east, living in various towns before settling in Newark, Del.

One of DuPont’s newest products in those years was Teflon, which Bill Gore believed was not being developed to its fullest potential. In 1958, he left DuPont and, along with his wife, Genevieve (Walton) Gore, started W.L. Gore & Associates in the basement of the family’s home to work with the material. Ms. Gore was secretary and treasurer. The couple were equal partners.

Mr. Gore in 2016 with a jumpsuit worn by the explorer and conservationist Will Steger during the 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition.Credit...via W.L. Gore & Associates Inc.

During that time, the younger Gore was earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware and, later, a master’s degree and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. In 1963, he joined W.L. Gore & Associates, which by then had left the family basement and was prospering making wire and cable products for the computer and aerospace industries.

During the Apollo 11 moon landing, coated cable manufactured by the company was used to attach a seismograph to the lunar lander. Fifty years later, the Mars rover launched in July carried the company’s wire and cable products.

As the decades rolled on, the uses for Gore-Tex seemed to expand, like the polymer itself. They include medical implants, industrial filters, packaging for biologic drugs, fuel cells for electric vehicles, uniforms for emergency responders and even guitar strings. (Coating the strings in ePTFE reduces the oil, cells and dirt that build up from a player’s fingers, resulting in better tone quality.)

Mr. Gore is survived by his wife, Jane (Arnold) Gore; three sons, Scott, Tom and Brian; a daughter, Sharon Rubin; six stepchildren, Debi Moore, Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich, Jack Arnold, Tom Coons, Chris Coons and Steve Coons; four siblings, Susan Gore, Ginger Giovale, Dave Gore and Betty Snyder; 28 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

In the Science History Institute film, Mr. Gore said his father was an energetic optimist, while his mother was “the heart of the enterprise” and nurtured employees’ careers. By many accounts, Mr. Gore combined those qualities as a leader. By 1996, his privately held company had reached sales of more than $1 billion. He stepped down as president in 2000.

Mr. Snyder recalled the nervous thrill of presenting a new product to Mr. Gore, who had adopted his father’s motto about business: “Jump in and see if you can swim.”

“He was super curious about things; he was rigorous,” Mr. Snyder said. “Bob entertained any kind of idea.”