The resins used to make plastics have been around for a lot longer than the plastics industry. Natural resins can be found in tortoise shells, tree sap, or a cow’s stomach. It was not until the nineteenth century that people realized resins could be changed into something useful.
A number of great inventors, among others, quickly found new types and uses for plastics. Some of these discoveries were even accidental! All of these inventors have left a distinct mark on society, as plastic’s importance and potential were quickly realized. Plastic itself has evolved over time with the addition of new ideas and discoveries. Work on new types and uses of plastics continue today. Could the next big innovation be yours?
Check out the Plastics Timeline to learn about the Evolution of Plastics.
Let’s have some fun while learning about the history of plastics. Test your knowledge by reviewing our trivia questions (mouse over the answer button to reveal the answer).
Alexander Parkes gets credit for creating the first plastic. His discovery, called Parkesine began the plastic revolution. He unveiled his invention, to great public interest, at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. His display included combs, hair slides and carved plaques. Parkesine was touted as being as useful as rubber but producible at a lower cost. In the end, it became obsolete because the cost of production materials was too high!
During the nineteenth century, billiards was such a popular game that thousands of elephants were killed to obtain their valuable ivory for billiard balls. In the latter part of that century, a rush was on to find an alternative to ivory in billiard balls and John W. Hyatt created a plastic celluloid replacement. He began by using collodon to make the balls, but they exploded when two balls collided. The solution was the addition of camphor. Billiard balls were the first commercial use of plastic.
Fact: Celluloid went on to be used in the first flexible photographic film for still and motion pictures.
Rayon was discovered by Louis Marie Hilaire Bernigaut, the Count of Chardonnet who was trying to create a synthetic silk. Unfortunately, the rayon he created was highly flammable; Charles Topham later fixed this problem.
Fact: Rayon is also known by many as artificial silk!
Leo Baekland created the first totally synthetic resin: bakelite. When heated, the resin quickly formed to the shape of its container. This versatile material wouldn’t burn, boil, melt, dissolve in solvents and was a thermoset plastic. Bakelite was used in numerous applications, such as saxophone mouthpieces, cameras, solid-body electric guitars, rotary-dial telephones, and appliance casings. Bakelite is still used today to manufacture products such as dominoes, pieces for games like chess or checkers, and backgammon.
Our modern society has now embraced plastic as part of everyday life. Cellophane was developed by Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger. In 1900, he came up with the idea for a clear packaging layer for food, and 13 years later he created the first fully waterproof, flexible wrap made from viscose. Cellophane had countless applications in everyday life.
An accident led to the development of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) by Waldo Semon and the B.F. Goodrich Company. While attempting to bind metal to rubber, Semon discovered a material that was durable, fire resistant, inexpensive, and easily moulded. When added to fabric, it yielded a material that lengthened the average life span of upholstery.
Ralph Wiley accidentally discovered polyvinylidene chloride while working at Dow Chemical lab. More commonly called saran, this plastic would cling to almost any surface, making it ideal for home use in food packaging.
While doing research on resins under high pressure, E.W. Fawcett and R.O. Gibson discovered polyethylene. The reaction between ethylene and benzaldehyde sprung a leak and a white waxy substance was left behind. Currently polyethylene is the highest volume plastic in the world. Today, it is used to make such common items as soda bottles, milk jugs, and grocery and dry-cleaning bags in addition to plastic food storage containers.
Roy Plunkett accidentally discovered Teflon while working at Dupont. His revolutionary breakthrough was the result of leaving a container of freon in a freezer; the gas dissipated into a solid white powder overnight. Teflon´s uniqueness comes from the fact that it is impervious to acids and temperature variations. As a result of its slippery properties, it is widely used in cooking materials.
George de Maestral noticed that many natural plants used tiny hooks to affix themselves to other materials. His plan to replicate this phenomenon using nylon materials resulted in the creation of velcro. It was a success as it did not rot or degrade and was inexpensive to produce.
Plastics in Modern Life
Since the 1950s, plastics have grown into a major industry affecting all our lives. Plastics provide improved packaging, give us new textiles, and permit the production of wondrous new products and cutting edge technologies. Since 1976, plastic has been the most used material in the world and was voted one of the top 100 news events of the century.
None of the applications and innovations we take for granted would have been possible if it weren’t for the early scientists who developed and refined the material. Because of those pioneers we enjoy the quality of life we do today.
The pioneering spirit lives on. Plastic products are convenient and quick to use in our fast-paced life. As the world becomes more conscious of the environment, people in the industry are searching for innovative and “green” uses for plastics, as well as additional ways to reuse and recycle. All this activity in the plastics field means an increase in the number and variety of careers associated with the plastics industry.