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Robert Gore, company president and inventor of Gore-Tex, dies at 83

Mr. Gore's invention of what created the breathable-yet-waterproof fabric known as Gore-Tex revolutionized outdoor wear and helped spawn uses in numerous other fields.
Mr. Gore's invention of what created the breathable-yet-waterproof fabric known as Gore-Tex revolutionized outdoor wear and helped spawn uses in numerous other fields.Eric Crossan/Associated Press

In October 1969, Robert Gore was a chemical engineer performing low-tech experiments for a Delaware company founded a decade earlier by his parents. The company, W.L. Gore & Associates, made insulated wires and cables for electronic equipment. Some of company’s cables had gone to the moon earlier that year on Apollo 11, the first manned space flight to land on the moon.

One evening in the lab, Mr. Gore was working with a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, the same material used to make Teflon. His goal was to find a material to make plumber’s tape at a lower cost. But every time he took a heated rod of PTFE from the oven and stretched it with his hands (protected by asbestos gloves), it snapped apart like a thin piece of Silly Putty.

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“It was getting on toward 6 o’clock in the evening,” Mr. Gore said in a 2019 video produced by his company, “and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to give you one last try.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you won’t stretch slowly, you’ll stretch fast.’ And I took the rod out of the oven and gave it a jerk, and it stretched the whole length of my arms. And I was totally stunned. I couldn’t believe it.”

He came back the next day and repeated the experiment, noting that the PTFE expanded by 800 to 1,000 percent. Contrary to his expectations and, seemingly, the laws of physics, it stayed the same width and was actually stronger in its elongated form than before.

“I didn’t know exactly what I had,” Mr. Gore told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1988, “but I knew I had something unique.”

The sudden tug caused the molecular structure of the PTFE to uncoil, creating billions of microscopic air pockets that added strength and porosity. Mr. Gore filed for patents on his new material, which became known as “expanded PTFE,” or ePTFE.

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Each square inch of the substance contained about 9 billion tiny pores, which “allowed air and moisture vapor to permeate through it, but it kept liquid water out,” Mr. Gore said in the company video.

The date of his discovery — Oct. 28, 1969 — became known as the day that Gore-Tex was born. The new product was used in electronics, medical devices, air filters, and industrial sealants. Glide dental floss is made from Gore-Tex.

But its best-known use came when Gore-Tex, a trademarked brand, was stretched into a flat, sheetlike membrane and laminated with other materials to create the first breathable, waterproof fabric. It became the key element of countless water-resistant items, including camping tents, jackets, gloves, and shoes.

Mr. Gore, who spent many years as an executive of W.L. Gore & Associates, died Sept. 17 at his home in Earleville, Md. He was 83.

His death was announced in a company statement. The cause was not disclosed.

Gore, who had a PhD in chemical engineering but did not use the title "Dr.," was named president of his company in 1976, the same year the first Gore-Tex fabrics became commercially available, first in tents and later in raincoats.

His company, based in Newark, Del., did not make clothing and shoes but instead licensed Gore-Tex products to other manufacturers under strict conditions — one was that the Gore-Tex label must always be visible. Every product was rigorously tested at a rain laboratory at Mr. Gore’s company.

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The privately controlled business, which began in the basement of the family home in Newark, grew into a multibillion-dollar enterprise that Fast Company magazine called in 2004 "pound for pound, the most innovative company in America."

Based on principles handed down from Mr. Gore’s parents, the company has an unusual, non-hierarchical corporate structure. All company facilities are called plants, and when a plant reaches about 200 workers, the maximum Mr. Gore’s father thought could work together amicably, another plant was built.

Decision-making is shared, and beyond the company president and treasurer, most employees are known as “associates.” Mr. Gore insisted on being called “Bob.”

A 2019 article in Bloomberg Businessweek called the company "a workers' democracy where engineers unencumbered by shortsighted investors and middle managers perform materials wizardry."

Robert Walton Gore was born April 15, 1937, in Salt Lake City. He moved in his early teens to Delaware, where his father was an engineer with DuPont, which began to produce Teflon as a commercial product in the 1940s.

Mr. Gore graduated from the University of Delaware in 1959. He received a master’s degree and, in 1963, a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He received his first patent in 1958 for a flat wiring strip, or multi-conductor ribbon cable, that became widely used in computers.

In recent years, new competitors to Gore-Tex have come onto the market, but the W.L. Gore company also makes guitar strings, headlight vents, heart stents, membranes used in electric car batteries, and tissues for experimental cornea transplants.

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Mr. Gore stepped down as company president in 2000 and as board chairman in 2018. The business now has 11,000 employees around the world, with annual sales of $3.8 billion.

Mr. Gore was married three times. Survivors include his wife since the late 1970s, the former Jane Arnold; four siblings; and numerous children, stepchildren and grandchildren.

For many years, Mr. Gore was on the board of the University of Delaware, to which he and his family donated millions of dollars. He also devoted considerable attention to the design of his company’s buildings and laboratories to ensure that they fostered creativity and the kind of serendipity that led to his discovery of Gore-Tex.

“I very much push us to try quick and dirty experiments,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2006. “That night in the lab I couldn’t work on big equipment. I had to use a lab oven. I did everything by hand. I was frustrated. If I hadn’t been frustrated I don’t think I would given such a hard jerk.”