The development of plastics is believed to have started around 1860, when a US pool and billiard board company offered a prize of $10 000 to a person who could design the best substitute for natural ivory.
One of the entrants, although not the winner, John Wesley Hyatt, developed a derivative for the contest. His product was quite successful commercially, being used in the manufacture of products from dental plates or men’s collars.
Over the next few decades more and more plastics were introduced. Shortly after the turn of the century Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian American Chemist, found that when he combined formaldehyde and phenol, he produced a material that bound all types of powders together. He called this material Bakelite – after himself – and it was the first thermosetting plastic in the world. This material, once it set hard, would not soften under heat. It had so many uses and so many potential uses, that it was called the material of a thousand uses.
Plastics as a whole became very important in World War II. Plane cockpits were made of Perspex, polythene was used to insulate radar cables and plastic was used to make synthetic rubber for tyres. Germany was cut off quite early on from the sources of natural latex and turned the plastics industry for replacement. A practical synthetic rubber was developed as a suitable substitute. With Japan’s entry into the was, the United States was no longer able to import natural rubber, silk and many metals from most Far Eastern countries. Instead, the Americans relied on the plastics industry.
Nylon was used in many fabrics and polyesters were used in the manufacturing of armour. Advances in the plastics industry continued after the end of the war.
Low density polyethylene was developed in 1939 by ICI in England. Plastics were being used instead of metal in machinery and safety helmets and even in certain high temperature devices. Karl Zieglar, a German Chemist, developed high density polyethylene in 1953 and the following year Giulio Natta, and Italian chemist, developed polypropylene (PP). These are two of today’s most commonly used plastics.
During the next decade two scientists received the 1963 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their research of polymers. More modern plastics include Teflon (used in non-stick pans), lycra (used initially in sportswear), and Dacron (crease and rot-resistant material used in sailing and tents). All of these have a background in the work done by Baekeland and his Bakelike.
Today the search for new plastics continues. New and exciting plastics are constantly being developed, replacing other materials such as wood and glass.
We have now entered the age of polymers and plastics.
Content and images courtesy of Plastics SA