Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

The great glow stick controversy

Dan Daranciang

I want to take this opportunity to put to rest a bit of contemporary campus folklore. Despite what you might have been told by tour guides, RCDs, RAs, and even staff or faculty members, Chancellor Wrighton did NOT invent the glow stick. He did not invent the glow necklace, nor anything else that glows at raves, baseball games and county fairs. I’m sorry to put a damper on such a rich piece of campus speculation, but there you have it.

Like so much else in life, politics and E! Entertainment News, lore is often just so much more compelling than facts. The rumors evidently started shortly after he arrived in 1995 and presented each new freshman with a glow stick, telling them, “I hope the gift of knowledge will illuminate your path through life.”

In 1997 he had the freshman class spell out “WU” using glow sticks while standing on the football field during orientation. Someone then made the faulty connection between the science that makes glow sticks work (chemical luminescence) and the chancellor’s own scientific work. Soon, students began suggesting that perhaps the chancellor’s penchant for the use of “glow-stuff” must have something to do with the fact that he makes money on every glow-thing sold.

Here’s what I’ve been able to find out. In 1962, researchers at China Lake Naval Weapons Center in California began to develop a series of “non-fire-producing chemical compounds with the properties of long-lasting luminous intensity and efficiency in extreme temperature conditions.” Glow-stuff.

The outcome of their efforts consisted of two liquids that are stored separately and glow instantly when mixed. The invention was originally used by the Navy for emergency lights, man-overboard float lights, target marking, helicopter landing zone marking, night parachute and paradrop operations, and other similar applications. Later it was put to more aesthetic uses, such as expanding the minds of drug-induced ravers. The inventors are Herbert Richter, Ronald Henry and Joseph Johnson. (U.S. Patent No. 4,626,383, entitled Chemiluminescent System Catalysts, and U.S. Patent No. 4,655,969, entitled Chemiluminescent Systems.)

Glow sticks, also known as light sticks, were standard issue for military personnel in the Gulf War, and current usage within the Department of Defense, according to one website, is about 15 million units per year. Not to mention the raves. The chancellor’s cut in all this technology transfer: zero.

Just to be sure, I recently asked the chancellor about his interest in and experience with chemical luminescence.

Q: Were you a part of that research group at China Lake in 1962?
A: I was 13 years old in 1962.

Q: Okay then. Do you know or have you ever met the inventors?
A: I have never met the inventors, but I have worked with people interested in the development and use of glow sticks.

Q: In 100 words or less, what does your own chemistry research have to do with chemical luminescence and did you ever use glow-stuff or its ingredients in your research?

A: Some of my work related to studying molecules that would exhibit a related phenomenon, electrogenerated chemiluminescence. The work involved finding molecules which would be highly luminescent when their oxidized and reduced forms react with each other. This work was really pioneered by a good friend, Dr. Allen J. Bard, at the University of Texas.

Q: Do any of your 14 patents have anything to do with chemical luminescence?

A: No, my patents relate to microelectrochemical sensors, electrochromic display materials, and semiconductor photoelectrochemical energy conversion devices.

Q: Do you earn any royalties from the sale of glow-stuff?

A: No, none of my patents have led to a blockbuster commercial development. Several of my patents, however, have been licensed, providing a small revenue stream.

Q: Have you ever been to a rave?

A: What’s a rave?

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