The Origin of the Polywater Name

In 1973, accomplished chemist Nelson Jonnes invented a revolutionary water-based cable pulling lubricant under the trademark Polywater®, which is still sold today in the communications and electrical industries through the company he founded, American Polywater Corporation. While Nels did trademark the word “polywater”, he did not coin it.

The intriguing origin of the Polywater name involves the sad tale of a Russian scientist named Boris Deryagin, who boldly claimed in 1962 that he’d discovered an entirely new form of water as the result of a laboratory experiment. This “anomalous” form of “modified water” supposedly remained liquid in far colder and hotter temperature extremes, offering profound implications for science and industrialized society. One top British scientist claimed Deryagin’s “polymerized” water was “the most important physical-chemical discovery of the century.” An American physicist, worried about what it might do in contact with regular water, claimed, “I regard the polymer as the most dangerous material on earth.” The CIA even tried to monitor further Soviet experimentation. This discovery was a big deal. The astonishing chemical breakthrough catapulted Deryagin to the top of the scientific world. A Nobel Prize for Boris was not inconceivable. His transcendent material was dubbed “polywater.”

Unfortunately for Deryagin, by 1970, after he and all others failed to duplicate the creation of polywater, his claims were disproven—simply the result of contamination—and he fell to the bottom of the scientific world in disgrace. The lessons of his misfortune—essentially to be more careful with lab experiments and bold claims—have been taught in science classes around the world ever since and find immortality on the internet. The tale inspired a 1981 book by author Felix Franks, which explores the whole topic in great detail.

As an ex-science teacher and chemistry enthusiast, Nels was captivated by the polywater tale. He later owned a copy of Felix Franks’ book and actually corresponded with the author himself on the subject. In 1973, when Nels added polymer powders to water and made polymerized water the easy way, he naturally thought of Deryagin’s polywater and shrewdly named his product after it, assuming that his unique cable pulling lubricant might actually resemble the gunk in the Russian scientist’s failed experiment.

The Polywater name thus has a cool history. The way Nels thought about it was this: Christianity has the holy grail; the food industry has manna—food of the gods; and the animal kingdom has the unicorn. All are mythical things with importance everyone instantly recognizes. That’s what
“polywater”—small p—is to the chemical industry: a magical, mythical material representing the very pinnacle of technology. It may be a lesser-known example than the others, but it’s actually a quite clever and apropos name for a company selling polymerized water products to industry.

Nels Jonnes used it very deliberately and was quite proud of the choice.