The Other Wyeth

Anyone can be an artist, but not all art is good.

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OIllustration by Jesse Kuhndd pairings are legendary. There’s Bill and Hillary. Jimmy Carter and his beer-drinking brother, Billy. And then there was Andrew Wyeth and his brother, Nat. One was an artist famed for his depictions of the parched winter landscapes of Maine and Chadds Ford. The other was responsible for much of the litter that mars those landscapes—and most others, as well.

Nathaniel Wyeth, an engineer who spent his career with DuPont, invented the plastic soda bottle. That’s the bottle—patented in 1973—whose manufacture requires 1.5 million barrels of oil annually and has only a one-in-five chance of ever being recycled.

During his career, Wyeth invented or was the co-inventor of 25 products and processes in plastics, textile fibers, electronics and mechanical systems. In 1986, he was elected to the Plastics Hall of Fame. He also was a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

“Very seldom do [ideas] come out of nowhere,” Wyeth told Kenneth A. Brown, author of Inventors at Work, in the 1980s. “It’s usually a culmination of one thought after another that leads to a solution and a complete understanding of the problem.”

“Complete” in his eyes, perhaps.

The third child of Carolyn and Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth, Nathaniel was initially named for his father. But the boy’s parents went to court before he reached age 5 and had his name legally changed.

It was their habit to put toddler Nat out on a sunny, enclosed porch in a baby carriage for his daily nap. But his hands were always greasy when they got him up. “One day, they kept an eye on me,” Wyeth said later. “Then, they noticed me lean over the side of the coach, reach down and move the wheels with my hands.”

By turning the wheels, the little boy made the coach move from one end of the porch to the other. Back and forth, over and over, and dirtying his hands in the process.

“I don’t know why we should encumber this boy with an artist’s name when he’s undoubtedly going to be an engineer,” said his father. “Look at his understanding of those wheels and the way he’s moving that coach!”

So, Newell Convers Wyeth Jr. became Nathaniel Convers Wyeth, a name he shared with an uncle who was an engineer.

Throughout his life, Wyeth dismissed the notion—posed repeatedly—that his father might have been disappointed that he didn’t paint. “The only thing he insisted on was that whatever we did, we should do it with all our hearts, with all our might,” he said.

And he did. As a boy, Wyeth cannibalized “I don’t know how many” alarm clocks for parts to build model speedboats. He used an airplane propeller to drive a pontoon boat. And he built a “sea sled”—6 feet long, with a curved bow and an outboard motor—so fast the Wyeths dubbed it Ex-Lax. When the Wyeths sailed to Monhegan Island during their Maine summers, Nat went along in Ex-Lax, doing circles around the family’s larger, slower powerboat. “The local paper,” said Wyeth, “wrote that I had taken Ex-Lax and gone to Monhegan,” a description which confused or offended some readers. “It sounded terrible.”

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