It's a Saturday afternoon and I'm leaving an awkward voice mail on the answering machine of one Dr. Edwin Chandross—a New Jersey resident, professional chemist, and the unwitting father of the most popular rave accessory in history: the glow stick.
If you're like me, you probably know where the glow sticks are in Wal-Mart's camping section—or maybe you've gotten looks pulling into a gas station at 3AM to buy a dozen. Of course, glow sticks have plenty of uses outside of the untz untz lifestyle, including as non-electric light sources for underwater divers and visual warnings to motorists on highways. As prevalent as they are in popular culture though, how much do we really know about these radioactive-looking bundles of joy? As it turns out, absolutely nothing.
There are many people listed on different patents for "light stick" devices and their derivatives, but all of them base their designs off the findings of Dr. Edwin Chandross. When the eighty-something scientist called me back the next day, I asked him if he had seen his chemiluminescent inventions out in public recently. Dr. Chandross was completely unaware that the fluorescent goop he cooked up in a laboratory in 1962 had become a staple at live music events across the globe. "Is that so?" He laughed. "Maybe my granddaughter will think I'm cool now."
The First Glow Stick
Born in Brooklyn in the 1930s, the good doctor first became interested in chemiluminescence while watching an experiment with luminol during his days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It fascinated me," he said over the phone. "I did some bootleg work as a graduate student trying to understand it. Leaving out pyrotechnics, chemical reactions usually produce heat, not light. Why and how did this one emit light?"
After leaving graduate school and taking a research position at Bell Labs in 1959, Chandross was able to test more theories. Though his experiments with luminol failed to yield the results he was looking for, it led him to discover that peroxalate esters provide the most important gateway to chemiluminescence. "In order to test my theory I needed to prepare a material that would react with hydrogen peroxide to provide the active ingredient. That required using two materials, and the important one turned out to be a volatile derivative of oxalic acid, the chloride." After creating a test compound that lit up ever so faintly, it only took a few more revised experiments to reveal the active luminescence-producing combination. "All these experiments took place in just one day," Chandross admits.
If you have the opportunity to speak with the doctor, he will probably try to downplay his discovery, calling it sheer luck. But the fact remains that Chandross made a very important contribution to science and chemistry—and parties. Writing it off as accidental would be like Charlie and his grandpa buying a ton of Willy Wonka chocolate bars and then being genuinely surprised to have found the golden ticket.
Though Chandross is the founding glowfather, you won't find his name on any US patents for the accessory. "We spoke to a Bell Labs patent attorney who declined to do anything," he says, politely describing what amounts to a massive oversight on the part of his company's legal counsel. "Who knew where this discovery could go?"
Building on Chandross' initial discovery, a team led by Michael A. Rauhut at American Cyanamid in Stamford, Connecticut went to work studying the oxalyl chloride reaction, and ultimately designed a phenyl oxalate ester that, when mixed with hydrogen peroxide and a dye, gave off a powerful cold light. They dubbed the mixture Cyalume and it became the trademark name for American Cyanamid's chemical light products.
The best parts about these glowing bad boys is that they're disposable and resistant to water and pressure, which not only make them perfect for intoxicated partiers, but also for the military. In fact, the biggest benefactor of glow sticks is not dance music fans, but the US Department of Defense. The DoD is known to require around 20 million "chem-lights" for their activities. Are you picturing men in full uniform doing figure eights and traces? Well, you are now.
The First Glow Stick War
Though glow sticks were long used as a military technology, some claim that the first public glow sticks debuted at a 1971 Grateful Dead show at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut.
"Our garage that spring and summer was filled with boxes with thousands of these things," a fan recalls on the Grateful Dead web forum dead.net. The user, Tommypea1953, was the son of a factory worker whose company was hired by American Cyanamid to create machines that assemble parts into finished glow sticks.
"There were seven of us," the Deadhead recounts. "We had backpacks and shoulder bags filled up with light sticks—would have to be like 500 to 700 of them in total. The show started when it was still light out but we could barely hold ourselves back until dark." A few songs into the set, they started doing their thing. "Grab a stick, break it, shake it, and throw it as far as you could. The entire end zone of the Yale Bowl stopped, even exploded with people cheering, yelling. The people around us were now grabbing handfuls of light sticks to throw and watching these green glow things fly around, tossed from area to area of the end zone."
Few people in attendance, including the Grateful Dead themselves, had ever seen a glow stick before, and the spectacle stopped the show in its tracks. "These sticks were flying all over it seemed and some, I might say as many as ten, ended up on stage. Before the crowd settled down, [Grateful Dead guitarist] Pigpen had one or two standing upright on several amplifiers. As they went into the next tune, Jerry [Garcia] had one in his left hand, and holds it up and says something like, 'I don't know what these are, but they're pretty fucking cool.'"
Knowing this, it's pretty easy to guess how the glow stick made its way from psychedelic rock to psychedelic acid house as the rave scene began to take shape in the late 80s. Especially when you consider that most of the substances that Deadheads were on made their way into rave culture as well.
Glow Sticks Today
Today, the glow stick has nearly reached the status of religious symbol. Glow necklaces are no longer only sold at Party City, but are a welcomed and heavily-stocked item at gas stations, grocery stores, and even the occasional street corner.
But even some 50 years after their emergence, the question of how the glow stick reaction produces light is still not yet fully understood. Still, the basic chemistry involves the reaction of an oxalate ester mixed with hydrogen peroxide—a principle that glowfather Edwin Chandross discovered. Though he may be the unsung hero of the glow stick, his service to science didn't end there. Dr. Chandross was also masterminded a purification process that enhanced fiber optic manufacturing—and this time, he got a patent for it.
Brittany Gaston is a lover of the beautiful and uncontained but really inappropriate, sarcastic and deranged - @runawaytonight