Alumnus Howard Irvin Earning Hall of Fame Recognition as Plastics Pioneer

Friday, February 21, 2020
Howard Irvin

A chemical engineering degree in 1943 helped pave the way for Howard Irvin’s innovative career in plastics. He developed the first moldable plastic, Cycolac, which has been used in several everyday products throughout the years.

Rose-Hulman alumnus and longtime trustee Howard Irvin will be inducted posthumously into the Plastics Hall of Fame this spring for his work as a pioneer in the area of moldable plastics.

Irvin developed the groundbreaking plastic Cycolac while working with BorgWarner Chemicals. Cycolac was the first moldable plastic that was not only hard and rigid, but also not brittle, like polystyrene. The plastic material was used for AT&T’s popular princess color telephones. Lego blocks, football helmets and RCA’s portable radio cabinets.

Cycolac, now produced by Sabic, remains one of the industry-standard brands in acrylonitrile butadyrene styrene (ABS) resins.

Later, as the BorgWarner Chemical’s vice president and technical director, Irvin oversaw the work done by about 50 professional chemists and chemical engineers, along with several technicians. He retired in 1982 as vice president of BorgWarner Inc. after being president of BorgWarner International. In that role he supervised production plants in North America, Europe and Asia.

Along the way, Irvin had professional relationships and business acquaintances with such distinguished leaders as Henry Ford, Henry Kissinger and General Electric’s Jack Welch.

Irvin immigrated to America in 1938 from Munich a few years before Hitler’s onslaught against German Jews.

He was at the age of 19, with only $10 to his name, and knew very little English. He resolved to work hard to succeed in his adopted country. Irvin worked for a year at Hyde Farm, an experimental farm in Virginia for German Jewish student refugees. A scholarship provided by the Warburg banking family of New York allowed him to graduate from Rose-Hulman in 1943 with a chemical engineering degree. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rose-Hulman in 1987 and served on the institute’s Board of Trustees for more than 25 years.

Irvin told stories about his German heritage and professional achievements in the book “People, Places and Tough Plastics,” published by Technology Management Associates Inc. in 2015.

Irvin died in 2017 at the age of 98 in Chicago.

The Plastics Academy will recognize Irvin and five other new posthumous members in the Plastics Hall of Fame on March 24 in Washington, D.C. The ceremony will be part of the spring national board meeting of the Plastics Industry Association.

"These new posthumous inductees proudly represent the length and breadth of our great industry, with a wealth of accomplishments in polymer science, engineering, manufacturing, equipment design and business management," stated Plastics Academy President Jay Gardiner in a press release announcing this year’s Hall of Fame honorees.