The first plastic was unveiled by Alexander Parkes at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. This material, which the public dubbed Parkesine, was an organic material derived from cellulose that, once heated, could be molded and retained its shape when cooled. Parkes claimed that this new material could do anything rubber could, but at a lower price. He discovered a material that could be transparent as well as carved into thousands of different shapes. But Parkesine soon lost its luster due to the high cost of the raw materials needed in its production.
During the 1800s, the search was on to find a replacement for ivory in billiards balls. The game became so popular that thousands of elephants were killed to obtain their valuable ivory. John Wesley Hyatt, an American, finally came upon the solution in 1866 with celluloid. Hyatt discovered that collodion congealed into a tough, flexible film when he spilled a bottle in his workshop. He then produced billiard balls using collodion as a substitute for ivory. But, due to its highly brittle nature, the billiard balls would shatter once they hit each other. The solution to this challenge was the addition of camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree. This addition made celluloid the first thermoplastic: a substance molded under heat and pressure into a shape it retains even after the heat and pressure have been removed. Celluloid was used in the first flexible photographic film for still and motion pictures.
The first completely synthetic substance was discovered in 1907 when New York chemist Leo Baekeland created a liquid resin named Bakelite. Baekeland had developed an apparatus, which he called a Bakelizer, which enabled him to adjust heat and pressure precisely to control the reaction of volatile chemicals. Using a pot-like apparatus, Baekeland developed a new liquid (bakelite resin) which rapidly hardened and took the shape of its container. Once it hardened, the resin would form a replica of any vessel which contained it. This new material would not burn, boil, melt, or dissolve in any commonly available acid or solvent. This meant that once it was firmly set, it would never change. This benefit made it stand out from the previous "plastics" produced. Previously, celluloid-based substances could be melted down innumerable times and reformed. Bakelite was the first thermoset plastic to retain its shape and form under any circumstances.
Bakelite could be added to almost any material, such as softwood, and instantly make it more durable and effective. Numerous products began to be manufactured based on this new material. The U.S. government saw Bakelite as opening the door to producing new weaponry and lightweight war machinery that steel could not match. Bakelite was a key ingredient in many weapons in World War 2.
Bakelite was also used for domestic purposes, such as an electrical insulator, and it proved to be more effective than any other material available. It was so effective that it is still used as such today. Bakelite was electrically-resistant, chemically stable, heat-resistant, and shatterproof and would neither crack, fade, crease, nor discolor from exposure to sunlight, dampness, or sea salt.
Rayon, another modified cellulose, was first developed in 1891 in Paris by Louis Marie Hilaire Bernigaut, the Count of Chardonnet. He was searching for a way to produce artificial silk. After studying silkworms, Bernigaut noticed that the worm would secrete a liquid from a narrow orifice that would harden upon exposure to air and turn into silk. He deduced that if he could find a liquid similar to silk before being secreted, he could pass it through an artificial apparatus to form fibers that could be spun and feel like silk. The only problem with his new invention was that it was highly flammable. Charles Topham later solved this problem.
Cellophane was discovered by Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, a Swiss textile engineer, who found an idea for a clear, protective packaging layer in 1900. Brandenberger was at a restaurant when he noticed a customer spill a bottle of wine onto the tablecloth. The waiter removed the cloth, replaced it with another, and disposed of the soiled one. Brandenberger swore that he would discover some way to apply a clear, flexible film to cloth, protecting it from such accidents and allowing it to be easily cleaned by simply wiping it with a clean towel. He worked on resolving this problem using different materials until he found a solution in 1913 by adding Viscose (now known as Rayon).
Brandenberger added Viscose to cloth, but the result was a brittle material that was too stiff to use. Yet Brandenberger saw another potential for the viscose material. He developed a new machine that could produce viscose sheets, which he marketed as Cellophane. With a few more improvements, Cellophane allowed for a clear layer of packaging for any product -- the first fully flexible, water-proof wrap.
The use of Cellophane spread throughout the world during the 1920s. One of the industry leaders, DuPont®, became an innovator of plastics and Wallace Hume Carothers, a young Harvard chemist, became the head of the DuPont® lab. The company was responsible for the moisture-proofing of Cellophane and was well on its way to developing Nylon, which they named Fiber 66. Carothers saw the possible value a new tough plastic, such as Fiber 66, could possess. The fiber replaced animal hair in toothbrushes and silk stockings. These stockings were unveiled in 1939 to great public acceptance. H. Staudinger in Germany was the first to recognize the structural nature of plastics, but Carothers built upon this theory. As demonstrated by Carothers, by substituting and inserting elements into the chemical chain, new materials and uses could be developed. During the 1940s, the world saw the use of such materials as Nylon, acrylic, neoprene, SBR, polyethylene, and many more polymers take the place of natural material supplies that were becoming exhausted.
Another important plastics innovation of the time was the development of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or vinyl. Waldo Semon, a B.F. Goodrich organic chemist, attempted to bind rubber to metal when he stumbled across PVC. Semon later discovered that this material was inexpensive, durable, fire-resistant, and easily molded. Vinyl found a special place in the hearts of Americans as an upholstery material that would last for years in the average family's living room.
In 1933, Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker, accidentally discovered yet another plastic -- polyvinylidene chloride (better known as Saran). Saran was first used to protect military equipment, but it was later discovered that it was great for food packaging. Saran would cling to almost any material -- bowls, dishes, pots, and even itself; it became the perfect tool for maintaining the freshness of food at home.
A DuPont® chemist named Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon® in 1938. Teflon® is widely used in kitchenware. Plunkett discovered the material accidentally by pumping freon gas into a cylinder left in cold storage overnight. The gas dissipated into a solid white powder. Teflon® is unique because it is impervious to acids, cold, and heat. Teflon® is now best known for its slipperiness, making it highly effective in pots and pans for easy cooking and cleaning.
In 1933, two organic chemists working for the Imperial Chemical Industries Research Laboratory tested various chemicals under highly pressurized conditions. The researchers set off a reaction between ethylene and benzaldehyde, utilizing 2000 atmospheres of internal pressure. The experiment went wrong when their testing container sprung a leak, and the pressure escaped. Upon opening the tube, they were surprised to find a white waxy substance resembling plastic. When the experiment was carefully repeated and analyzed, the scientists discovered that the pressure loss was only partly due to a leak; the greater reason was the polymerization process that had occurred, leaving behind polyethylene. In 1936, Imperial Chemical Industries developed a large-volume compressor that made producing vast quantities of polyethylene possible.
Polyethylene played a key supporting role during World War II, first as an underwater cable coating and then as a critical insulating material for such vital military applications as radar insulation. This is because it was so light and thin that it made placing radar onto airplanes possible, something that could not be done using traditional insulating materials. After all, they weighed too much. The use of polyethylene as an insulating material reduced the weight of radars to 600 pounds in 1940 and even less as the war progressed. These lightweight radar systems, capable of being carried onboard planes, allowed the out-numbered Allied aircraft to detect German bombers under such difficult conditions as nightfall and thunderstorms.
It was not until after the war that the material became a tremendous hit with consumers and, from then on, experienced a tremendous rise in popularity. It became the first plastic in the United States to sell more than a billion pounds a year, and it is currently the largest volume of plastic in the world. Polyethylene makes common items such as soda bottles, milk jugs, grocery and dry-cleaning bags, and plastic food storage containers.
A plastic that has struck the fancy of many youngsters over the years is plastic putty -- better known as Silly Putty. James Wright, a G.E. engineer, came upon the material by mixing silicone oil with boric acid. The compound possessed some rather unique qualities. It acted like rubber in its ability to rebound almost 25 percent higher than a normal rubber ball. This "Nutty Putty" was also impervious to rot and unable to maintain a shape for more than a short time. It could be stretched many times its length without tearing. This material would also copy the image of any printed material it was pressed upon. In 1949, the material was sold as Silly Putty, selling faster than any other toy in history, with over $6 million in sales for the year.
The birth of Velcro®, another unique plastic product that has impacted nearly all of our lives, occurred in 1957. A Swiss engineer named George de Maestral was impressed with cockleburs, a type of vegetation that could use thousands of tiny hooks to cling to anything they came into contact with. He devised a product using Nylon that replicated this natural phenomenon. The result, Velcro®, could be spun in any required thickness, would not rot, mold, or naturally degrade, and was relatively inexpensive.