Robert W. Gore, the creator of Gore-Tex technology and other scientific discoveries that led to advancements in performance fabrics, medical devices and space exploration, died Thursday at age 83.
Plans for a memorial service have not yet been set.
Gore, the son of the founders of W.L. Gore & Associates, served on the company’s board for 57 years, including 30 years as chairman. He was most recently chairman emeritus. He also served as president of the company from 1976 until 2000. By 2003, the company had become a $1.3 billion enterprise with 5,000 employees.
Passionate about the instilled focus and discipline that is required for innovation, Gore vowed that “our products will do what we say they will do.” By the Aughts, staffers were known to cut out of meetings in the company’s Elkton, Md., headquarters to wear and test the climate-controlled products that they helped develop, provided it was raining hard enough.
In 1996, with Gore at the helm as president, the company exceeded $1 billion in sales. Essential to that growth was the research and development that he led — much of which was years in the making. The benefits of those scientific discoveries can be found in a myriad of products including many made by Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, Burton Snowboards and other apparel companies.
Columbia Sportswear’s chief executive officer Tim Boyle said, “Bill and Bob Gore defined innovation in the outdoor apparel industry. Gore-Tex practically built the outdoor business, as we know it today. Can you name any other outdoor component that defined an episode of ‘Seinfeld’?”
While world-class mountaineers Jim Whittaker used Gore-Tex outerwear to lead the first American team to ascend K2 in 1978, less athletic types later contributed to the company’s growth. “From the Mountain to Manhattan” was a company initiative launched in 2001, after consumers sent an overwhelming number of letters to the company asking for more fashionable performance wear made with Gore-Tex.
Shoppers’ and designers’ appreciation for lightweight, breathable Gore-Tex items can be seen today on many pedestrians crisscrossing cities streets. While designers like Bill Blass and Cathy Hardwick were early adopters of using performance fabrics for sportswear purposes, more recently Gore-Tex items have been designed by Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, Prada and others.
In 1969, Gore discovered the versatile new polymer form, expanded polytetrafluoethylene, or ePTFE. This pioneering material led to a host of possibilities for never-been-done products and more innovations. During the late Sixties, the race was on at Gore to develop products for computing, space exploration and defense.
Gore’s breakthrough discovery occurred one night in the fall of 1969. While researching a process for stretching extruded PTFE into pipe-thread tape, he discovered that the polymer could be expanded. He had previously tried unsuccessfully stretch heated rods of PTFE by about 10 percent. His discovery happened after he applied a sudden, accelerating yank that unexpectedly caused it to expand by nearly 1,000 percent. This led to the transformation of solid PTFE into a microporous structure that was mostly air.
Even in the late Seventies, the ability to make a fabric lightweight and breathable was novel. Gore-Tex, a laminate with nine million pores per square inch, fit that bill. The pores were designed to be too minuscule to allow water droplets to penetrate, but they were meant to be large enough to allow water vapor to pass through. By the late Seventies, Gore was buying a variety of fabrics from various converters and adding the Gore-Tex laminate in either a two-layer or three-layer construction.
During his lifetime, Gore was awarded nine patents for his work with fluoropolymers. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Gore was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
Born in Salt Lake City, Gore was the eldest of five children. His career path was intrinsically linked to that of his parents Wilbert and Genevieve, who started W.L. Gore & Associates in 1958 in the basement of their home. After World War II, his father had joined the DuPont workforce and was later moved to DuPont’s Experimental Station in Delaware.
The family’s togetherness was stronger than most, considering that they built the house that they would live in in Newark, Del. An athlete, trombone player and member of student government, Bob Gore’s teenage years were fairly routine.
His scientific tinkering helped to kick-start his parents’ company. During its early years, the company focused on the wire and cable industry. Most monumentally, its cable technology was used for the historic moon landing by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of the Apollo 11 crew in 1969. Gore provided wire and cable products that connected to seismographic equipment to the lunar lander. The lunar rock-collecting shovel included Gore’s durable insulated wire. Gore cables were used in the spacecraft’s guidance and navigation systems, as well as the ground support equipment that safely guided the astronauts home.
Gore earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. In 1976, he succeeded his father as chief executive officer of the company. The science and engineering research laboratories at his alma mater were named for him and his wife Jane, and there is a Gore Hall on campus.
Gore’s ceo Jason Field said, “Innovation as activity, doing things with your hands, experimenting, testing and observing, was instilled in our enterprise consistently and productively throughout Bob’s tenure as both president and chairman.”
Gore’s insistence that the products the company designed fulfilled the properties that were promised to consumers created an ever-searching quest for research and development. As one Gore executive said in an interview with WWD in 2003, “There’s a book about business called, ‘Only the Paranoid Survive.’ We’re like that.”
Gore is survived by his wife Jane and their children, as well as by four siblings Susan Gore, Ginger Giovale, David Gore and Betty Snyder.