The hundreds of industry professionals who plan to attend the 50th Annual International Waterborne, High-Solids, and Powder Coatings Symposium, known as the Waterborne Symposium, will help celebrate its milestone anniversary and become an important part of its rich history. The event is set for February 12–17 in New Orleans, so attendees will also experience the buzzing excitement of the city in anticipation of Mardi Gras, which starts the following week.

When the symposium began in 1973, the world looked very different. That year, the Vietnam War ended, the predecessor to the European Union was formed, and The Godfather won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A man made the first mobile phone call, and Chicago’s Sears Tower became the world’s tallest building.

The inaugural Waterborne Symposium was also quite different with 135 attendees and seven presentations. In contrast, the 2022 symposium had 230 attendees and 39 presentations, and at its peak in 1998, 507 people attended and 44 papers were presented. Union Carbide and Shell Chemical Company presented at the 1973 symposium. The papers presented included “contributions from scientists from Union Carbide; American Cyanamid Company; DeSoto, Inc.; Lehigh University; and University of Houston.”

Each symposium is the product of 50 years of changes and improvements—evidence of the effort that the Waterborne Symposium’s organizers have made to grow the event and respond to the changes that are inevitable as time passes. Historical events and expansion in the coatings industry have had roles in the symposium’s history, to name a couple.

The September 2001 terrorist attacks resulted in travel restrictions, which severely reduced attendance at the 2002 symposium. Several years later, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, raising concern that the city would be unable to recover before the next symposium. The city did recover, and the 33rd symposium was held as scheduled in February 2006. More recently, the symposium reinvented itself into a successful virtual event in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the interactive online event was well-received, attendees welcomed the opportunity to connect in person when the symposium returned to the Crescent City in 2022.

Much of the attention early on sought to refine the various timing logistics of the symposium. The 1973 symposium was held Monday, August 13, through Wednesday, August 15, at the Sheraton-Charles Hotel, but since 1974, the symposium has almost always been held in the winter just before Mardi Gras. In 1985, the symposium schedule shifted to start on Wednesday and end on Friday. That left Monday and Tuesday open for the addition of short courses in 1998, which also saw the implementation of the first Technology Showcase.

The amount of content and resources available to symposium-goers increased substantially when the short courses and Technology Showcase joined the lineup. The Technology Showcase, an exhibition of interactive booths, enables industry experts (that is, scientists and engineers who represent manufacturers, suppliers, and service providers) to present their latest findings and developments.

To accommodate the evolving coatings industry, the Waterborne Symposium has had five names over its 50 years. The first was called the Water-Borne and Higher-Solids Coatings Symposium, but it was changed in 1990 to add “Powder Coatings” because of the growth of that sector. In 1994, “Water-borne” became “Waterborne” to keep up with the times, and in 1995, “Higher- Solids” became “High-Solids.” The final change happened in 1996; because the symposium had expanded to a worldwide audience, the name was altered to start with “International.” By 2007, the International Waterborne, High-Solids, and Powder Coatings Symposium had become inclusive, but a bit long, so “The Waterborne Symposium” became its nickname for branding purposes.

The Waterborne Symposium has remained the same in several aspects. Three faculty members from the Department of Polymer Science at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) founded the symposium, and USM has sponsored it ever since. The Southern Society for Coatings Technology (SSTC), which cosponsored the symposium from its inception until 1997, switched to sponsoring the newly created Technology Showcase in 1998.

The impact of the Waterborne Symposium should not be overlooked. Its Proceedings publication has been an “important technical resource within the published literature in the field of paints and coatings” for the past 50 years. The European Coatings Journal review deemed the symposium as “North America’s most prestigious conference in the field of paints and coatings” in its March 1999 issue.

Proceeds from the symposium have funded recruitment, scholarships, and program support for the University of Southern Mississippi, which has conferred “approximately 700 undergraduate and graduate degrees in Polymer Science and Polymer Science and Engineering.”

Professors Gary Wildman, George Bufkin, and Shelby Thames founded the Waterborne Symposium with the intention of gathering those in the coatings industry to exchange information and network at an annual technical conference. The symposium has successfully fulfilled—and exceeded—this mission for the past 50 years, as it is now a cornerstone of the paint and coatings industry.

Be sure to check out the entire digital issue of the January-February 2023 CoatingsTech.