Louis-Marie-Hilaire Bernigaud, comte de Chardonnet, born in Besancon, France, is credited with having developed artificial silk, which came to be known as rayon. In the 1860s Chardonnet, originally trained as an engineer, assisted Louis Pasteur in an effort to save the French silk industry from an epidemic affecting silkworms.
In 1878, while working in a photographic darkroom, Chardonnet accidentally overturned a bottle of nitrocellulose. When he started to clean up the spill, he saw that the nitrocellulose had become viscous due to evaporation. As he wiped it, he noticed long, thin strands of fiber resembling those of silk.
Chardonnet began to experiment further with the nitrocellulose. He worked with the silkworm's food, mulberry leaves, turning them into a cellulose pulp with nitric and sulfuric acids, and stretched the resulting pulp into fibers. This fiber, cellulose nitrate, could be used in garments, but it was highly flammable. Some garments made of this early artificial silk reportedly burst into flame when a lit cigarette was nearby. Chardonnet solved this problem by denitrating these fibers with ammonium sulfide, which reduced the flammability of the material without sacrificing its strength.
Chardonnet received his first patent for artificial silk in 1884 and began manufacturing the material in 1891. In 1924 artificial silk came to be known as rayon.
Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. New York: Wiley.
"Rayon." Available from http://www.bartelby.com .