Who invented Fluorescent Dyes & Paints?

In 1933, 19-year-old Robert Switzer woke up in the hospital not remembering how he got there. A look in the mirror revealed puffed and bandaged eyes and a cracked skull through his double vision. He’d been working his summer job at the Heinz factory when he was found unconscious under a fallen crate. You can imagine the the grotesque scene of the injured boy slathered in ketchup from the broken bottles.

With internal bleeding, a damaged optic nerve and memory loss, the chemistry student was in a bad way. After some recovery time he was sent home with strict instructions to avoid bright sunlight till his eye healed further. Robert’s father built a dark room for him in the basement of the family drug store to keep him busy during his convalescence, but very little photography would result.

Joseph, the other Switzer sibling, was the extrovert and showman of the pair. He fancied himself a magician and wanted to break new ground in the Black Arts, magic performances involving the use of ultraviolet light to illuminate dull fluorescent materials for that otherworldly look. He went to his younger brother, the chemist, with a challenge to make a more showy fluorescent material for his act.

The Happy Accident that led to the discovery of Fluorescent Paints

One night the brothers stepped out of their basement laboratory with a black light in hand to see how various materials in their Dad’s drug store reacted. They discovered some dull glows and some stronger luminescent effects, but Murine eye drops were the winner. They blended it with an alcohol solution of white shellac paint and the Switzers had invented their first fluorescent yellow paint.

Fluorescent pigment
Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

Joseph used the new paint in his act during a big magician’s convention. His show involved a glowing Balinese dancer giving a spirited performance on a dark stage. In the final throes of her passionate dance, her fluorescent painted prop head floated off her body. The wide-eyed audience went wild and Joseph won best effect of the night.

The Switzer brothers were now in the magic business and made good money from their Mother’s laundry room, creating a fluorescent paint kit for such magical acts.

34c3 Blacklight stuff 38624672185
Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

In time they expanded their business to another big market. They ensured that spirit mediums of the time had sufficiently convincing special effects, ethereal messages on curtains and glowing ectoplasm to relieve many clients of their spirit consultancy fees. In an equally bizarre twist, their paints were mixed with embalming fluid to make sure the bodies and funeral homes were properly embalmed. The well embalmed body would glow evenly under a black light.

Later in their careers, Joseph and Robert founded DayGlo Color Corporation and started an entire industry and invented the fluorescent yellow, pink and red inks which are visible in regular light and are now ubiquitous symbols of safety in our times.

Art exhibition under black light
Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

But in the beginning, these vibrant colours of life definitely glowed bright with a theatrical touch of death.

Read other interesting stories of stationery and its origin on the links below,

  1. Who invented Crayola crayons? – https://inkymemo.com/who-invented-crayola-crayons/
  2. Factory Tours of Popular Stationery Brands including Crayola – https://inkymemo.com/factory-tours-of-popular-stationery-brands/

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