Robert "Bob" Steiner found beauty in molecules and chemical equations, but he was also interested in science's practical applications. It was a combination...

Share story

Robert “Bob” Steiner found beauty in molecules and chemical equations, but he was also interested in science’s practical applications. It was a combination that helped make things like plastic bread bags and film-wrapped cigarette packs possible.

Through years of research, Mr. Steiner became a plastics pioneer, using the science of tiny particles to create acrylic coatings for polypropylene packaging. His colleagues once dubbed him the “father of the acrylic coating,” and next time you rip open a bag of potato chips, you can give some thanks to Mr. Steiner and his inventions.

“It wasn’t called ‘nanotechnology’ when he was doing it — it was completely unknown [and shows] how ahead of the times he was,” said one of Mr. Steiner’s former employees, Bob Touhsaent of Fairport, N.Y.

Mr. Steiner died Friday at a nursing facility in Shoreline. He was 89 and had suffered from strokes and other illnesses for many years.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Despite his importance to the world of plastics, Mr. Steiner was like an absent-minded professor, the kind who always seemed to lose his car in the company parking lot, said Touhsaent, who worked under Mr. Steiner at Mobil Chemical in Rochester, N.Y.

“You couldn’t ask for a better boss,” Touhsaent said. “He was a real gentleman and he always had a good story to tell.”

Robert Henry Steiner was born May 24, 1918, in Erie, Pa., the youngest of four children. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1939 and four years later received a doctorate in organic chemistry.

When World War II broke out, Mr. Steiner got a deferment from military service to work on defense projects, researching adhesives to attach synthetic rubber to metal for things like tank treads and airplane wings, said his son, Ken Steiner, of Seattle.

“When I was a kid, I would be embarrassed when other kids would say, ‘My dad was in the Navy’ or ‘My dad was in the Marines,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t until I was older that I realized my dad helped win the war with his brain.”

During the war years, Mr. Steiner went to work for the Firestone Co. in Paterson, N.J. He was set up on a blind date with Louise Rahnefeld. They married on June 3, 1945. She survives him in Shoreline.

They moved between small towns in Pennsylvania and Connecticut before settling in 1958 in upstate New York to raise their two children. He went to work for a company called Kordite, which became part of Mobil Chemical. He retired in 1983.

It was at Mobil that Mr. Steiner thought of adding “nano-sized particles” of sand to coatings for polypropylene, which would largely replace cellophane in food packaging, Touhsaent said. “It was a big breakthrough,” he added, especially because Mr. Steiner’s invention worked on existing machinery.

Mr. Steiner and his wife moved to Seattle in 1994 to be closer to their only grandchild. Before his health declined, Mr. Steiner volunteered for a food bank in Queen Anne. He would drive around the city to pick up day-old bread and other donated items from local businesses. In addition to his son and widow, survivors include his daughter, Anne Steiner of Alameda, Calif., and granddaughter, Elizabeth Steiner, who is attending college in Cleveland.

A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. today at Queen Anne Lutheran Church, 2400 Eighth Ave. W. Remembrances may be made to the Memorial Fund of Queen Anne Lutheran Church or to Providence Hospice, 425 Pontius Ave. N., Suite 300, Seattle, WA 98109.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.