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Plastics History

The history of plastics goes back more than 100 years - however, compared to other materials, plastics are relatively modern. Their usage over the past century has enabled society to make huge technological advances to take us towards the new Millennium. Pre-20th Century Although we think of plastic as a modern invention, there have always been "natural polymers" such as amber, tortoiseshell and horn. These materials behaved very much like manufactured plastics and were often put to similar uses to today's materials - for example, horn, which becomes transparent and pale yellow when heated, was used to replace glass in the 18th century. The original breakthrough for the first semi-synthetic plastics material - cellulose nitrate - occurred in the late 1850s and involved the modification of cellulose fibers with nitric acid. Cellulose nitrate had many false starts and financial failures following its invention by a Briton, Alexander Parkes, who exhibited it as the world's first plastic in 1862. Firstly known as Parkesine, then Xylonite, it began to find success in the production of objects such as ornaments, knife handles, boxes and more flexible products such as cuffs and collars.

It was the game of billiards that provided the unlikely cause for its eventual commercial success. The American Hyatt brothers were attempting to develop a substitute for the ivory billiard ball and in so doing came up with a process for manufacturers using a nitrate cellulose composition. Celluloid was thus born and was patented in 1870 - its early commercial success lay in dental plates for false teeth. 

However, the flammability of cellulose nitrate prevented its use in mass production rapid molding techniques. The early 1900s saw the development of cellulose acetate to get around this problem. This was widely used as safety film to stiffen and waterproof the fabric wings and fuselage of early airplanes. Casein formaldehyde was also developed at this time. Based on fat-free milk and rennin, this could be hardened and shaped to make buttons, buckles and knitting needles.

Bakelite - a hard, dark plastic - was discovered by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-born chemist in 1907 and was the first truly synthetic plastic to be patented. Made from carboxylic acid and formaldehyde, Bakelite resin was normally reinforced with fillers (either fibers or woodflour).

Bakelite brought plastics into consumers' lives in a variety of ways. Its excellent insulating properties made it an ideal material for hairdryers, radio cabinets, ashtrays and cameras. Bakelite also had the benefit of looking similar to wood, so was a popular choice for car dashboards and knobs.

It was also used to impregnate paper or fabric to make high pressure laminates for the emerging telecommunications industry.

The first patent for PVC was registered in 1914. Cellophane was also discovered during this period.

The 1920s
In 1922 a German chemist, Hermann Staudinger, made a discovery which would change the whole face of the plastics industry. Through working with synthesized rubber, he found that plastics are made from chains of thousands of molecules linked together, known as "superpolymers" - a find which prompted the invention of many new plastics. 

1922 - first spectacles molded in cellulose acetate (in France)

The 20s saw the production of the first moldable light-colored plastic, made by combining carbon dioxide and ammonia with formaldehyde. The resulting product, urea formaldehyde, could be used to great visual effect and was highly popular in making tableware. By adding colored powder to the white mixture, it was possible to produce patterns which looked like marble, alabaster or stone, so for the first time, plastics were not just a functional choice, but also an aesthetic one. These urea resins also found important industrial applications in varnishes, laminates and adhesives.

In 1921 the first injection molding machine was designed.

The 1930s
Two developments during the 30s swept the plastics industry into mass production. Firstly, manufacturers learnt how to produce plastics from petroleum - polystyrene, acrylic polymers and polyvinyl chloride were all made in this way. Secondly, injection molding, which had always been problematical, became much improved and fully automated in 1937. Both developments were good news for the consumer as they brought down the price of the end-product and put plastics within easy grasp of everyone. Development of PVC continued apace with the first use in insulating electric cables in 1930.

Polyamide was also developed at this time, and polystyrene was first produced commercially in 1937 when an economic way of preventing polymerization during storage was found.

Polymethyl methacrylate (acrylic or "Perspex") was also invented at this time, and by 1935 it was starting to be used in aircraft cockpit manufacture and in other protective screens.

The first epoxy resins were developed in Switzerland in 1938. Main applications at that time were in dentistry and medicine, and, due to their adhesive qualities as a constituent of glue, plastics became an increasingly common sight in the home as urea formaldehyde became more widespread. This was an era when, for the first time, consumers were demanding convenience, mainly because fewer people were employing domestic staff. As a result, hygienic, easy-to-clean surfaces and labor saving devices were becoming popular. An attractive, light-colored, hard-wearing plastic, urea formaldehyde suited modern lifestyles perfectly and was used to make items such as molded egg cups, cruet sets, light fittings, cream makers and picnic sets.

The 1940s
World War II meant a huge boost for plastics. As a domestically generated resource which had by this time become relatively cheap, plastic was able to take over from imported materials. In terms of design technology, consumer products benefited from the new techniques which had been developed out of necessity during the war. The production of plastics which are still used widely today - such as polyethylene, polystyrene, polyester, PET and silicones - all grew during the wartime period. Silicones, for example, became widely used as water repellants and in heat resistant paints.

Nylon, the first totally man-made fiber, had been discovered at the end of the 20s, but was not put to great use until the 40s. Consisting of long filaments which could be spun and woven or knitted, the new plastic was used to make everything from parachutes to upholstery.

PVC really took off during this decade and into the 1950s. It could be used, among other things, to make records. This discovery was particularly well-timed considering the boom of the popular music industry in this era. The 1950s The 50s saw the growth of decorative laminates such as Formica, first popular in the United States where they were used widely in espresso bars and dinettes. At the same time, molded melamine formaldehyde resin was becoming widely used as a component in tableware and became a popular alternative to china - so much so that by the late 1950s, as much as 50% of all dinnerware sold was molded using this material. A first for the car industry: 1956 saw the major use of plastics in car body design when the roof of a Citroen DS was made from unsaturated polyester reinforced with fiberglass. The combination of polyester and fiberglass became a popular choice thereafter in the production of body parts for cars and boats.

Polyethylene was first discovered in 1933, but it was in the 50s that the material really took off thanks to a new, safer production method. The new material which had a high melting point and could be used where other plastics had failed, was used for dustbins, baby baths and chemical containers. It was also the material behind one of the most famous symbols of suburban life: Tupperware.

The 1950s
During the 50s plastics became a major force in the clothing industry. Polyester, Lycra and nylon were easy to wash, needed no ironing and were often cheaper than their natural alternatives and, as a result, were hugely popular with consumers tired of the tyranny of housework.

The 1960s
In a decade renowned for its emphasis on style and fashion, the fact that plastics had become highly developed was a huge advantage. This led to the introduction of a range of innovative new products in the fashion world, including soft and hard foams with a protective skin, wet-look polyurethane and transparent acrylic. Home decor also benefited, where eccentric designer furniture such as inflatable chairs and acrylic lights became "must haves" for fashion-conscious consumers.

1960 saw the first use of PVC to bottle mineral water.

The first domestic items made from molded polypropylene were developed from 1963 onwards - including combs, lemonsqueezers and bottle stoppers.

The so called "Space Race" began in the late 60s. Plastics played an important part in the production of spacecraft components and equipment: its lightness and versatility made it a material of choice.

The 1970s Plastics were playing an increasing "behind the scenes" role in technological advances which began to take off during this decade. In engineering and the emerging computer industry, new "super polymers" were beginning to replace metals. Among other things, the hygienic nature of plastics meant that use in medicine became increasingly important. However, on the style front, the 70s saw an inevitable backlash against the synthetic swinging sixties, with consumers favoring a return to natural materials like wood, cotton, steel and leather. This trend coincided with a world energy crisis and resulting shortage of materials and for the first and only time in the history of plastics, there was a slump in the industry.

The Punk craze in the late 70s provoked a slight resurgence of plastics among consumers with vinyl used in clothes and fashion accessories.

The 1980/90s
The explosion in global communications during the 80s and 90s has been made largely possible through the use of plastics. Equipment such as computers, fiber optic cables and telephones all use plastics widely in their design to provide strength, light weight, insulation and flexibility. Transport also has started using plastics more widely. Plastics use in cars jumped 11% between 1974-88, and in the 1980s, the first flight tests of the all-plastics aircraft took place.

Shopping habits have also changed enormously with the emergence of super- and hypermarkets and less and less purchase of fresh foods from dedicated suppliers. Plastics are now widely used in packaging and play a key role in helping transport maintain the freshness of the products we buy from these outlets.

Laminates saw a revival in the interior design world. But unlike the decorative laminates of the 60s, the new breed were at the upper end of the market. The Milan Furniture Show in 1981 showed "The New International Design" - furniture using multicoloured plastic laminates which were sold at anything from 2,000 upwards.

Plastics became so highly developed that they could not only imitate but in some cases exceed the performance of the real thing! For example PVC which looks like leather, and solid surfaces which imitate granite or marble are now available.

Solid surface materials were launched during the 80s. Harder than hardwood, the surfaces could be routed, sandblasted and beveled to produce interesting effects, which made them popular for use in the kitchen.

source: Wageningen University University for Life Sciences, Department of Agrotechnology and Food Sciences. Processing of Agricultural Raw Materials for Non-Food Products. P050-217.  http://www.ftns.wau.nl/agridata/apme/plastics.htm  27oct01

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