The History of Plastic

Filed under: Features — Posted by: Emma on June 6, 2013

There are few, if any, areas of life today where plastics in all forms do not play a major role. From major industrial and commercial uses, to being used at the cutting edge of science and medical research, the material contributes positively in every way. From plastic sheets to custom sized plastic devices, everything is possible.

On the basis of volume, plastic is one of the most used materials in the world, and it is really only in the last hundred years that the material has become so prevalent in society. However, plastic has roots a lot further back than this.

The first mention

Historians differ in opinion as to where the first use of plastic is noted. However, many cite the Old Testament in Christian teachings as being the first reference point, with many references to adhesives and coatings which, it could be argued, were precursors to plastics.

However, there is a broad agreement that the first truly recorded mention of plastic, as we would recognise it, was in 1284. In this respect, the reference was to a natural horn and tortoiseshell product being produced by The Horners Company of London.

From here, things are indelibly linked with the rubber industry and particularly through the industrial revolution, many steps forward were made in both plastic and rubber. The opening salvo in this regard came from Charles Macintosh, who patented his use of rubber gum to waterproof cotton in 1823.

Although wildly different, it is strange to think that this simple invention essentially leads to where we are now, with hoarding panels and sheet plastic cut to any required measurement. Naturally though, there was an awful lot of work and development in the intervening years.

Other developments

As the emerging rubber industry was developing, further developments were taking place in Europe and the U.S. The most notable development of the time was cellulose nitrate, which soon became recognised for its use as an explosive. It was also recognised as a waterproofing agent for fabrics, which was developed by Englishman Alexander Parkes and first revealed at the Great Exhibition in London in 1862.

Meanwhile in the US, John Wesley Hyatt developed a commercially viable mixture of cloth, ivory dust and shellac to coat billiard balls. Hyatt and his brother Isaiah would later take out a patent on a process which produced a horn-like material using plasticized cellulose nitrate. Camphor was the other key ingredient to the product, which later became known as celluloid.

As important as cellulose nitrate is to the history of plastics, formaldehyde was also crucial. The development of formaldehyde would help the plastics industry develop significantly, largely as a result of the need for white chalkboards in Germany, which resulted in casein plastics, which are still very much used by the button industry.

Further experimentation would see the dawning of Bakelite, and the first truly commercially successful synthetic resins. In 1907, the New York-based Belgian Leo Baekeland would discover a technique to control and modify the phenol-formaldehyde reaction, which resulted in phenolics.

This in turn led to further work being conducted into alternative materials. The reactions of urea and thiourea with formaldehyde would see the extensive manufacture of moulding powders. These continue to have great commercial success today, including use in the adhesive and textile industries.

World War Two and plastics

Whilst much work continued into the development of synthetic resins, leading to the discovery of cellulose acetate, which offered a safer alternative to cellulose nitrate, it was the Second World War which would really push the industry forward.

In 1940, polyethylene which had been developed just a year earlier by ICI was first used in radar technology. The year also saw PVC being produced for the first time in the UK, whilst in 1941 a patent was issued for polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Further developments in the 1940s would see the first sight of super glue, squeezy bottles used to replace glass containers, melamine laminates and records made from polyvinyl chloride, now affectionately just known as vinyl.

Bringing the decade to a close, in as much a joyful fashion as the end of the war did, other fun and commercially successful developments included the first polystyrene Airfix kits, the launch of Tupperware and the invention of Lycra by DuPont.

Mid-century developments

The following decade would see the plastics industry continue to develop, though at a slower rate. However, it would still see the commercialisation of polyester fibres. Revolutionising the clothes industry, cleaning and drying would become immeasurably easier.

Other highlights of the 1950s were seen in the toy industry, notably with the patenting of the Lego building brick system and the debut of the Barbie Doll. It is Lego, which would later go on to move from cellulose acetate bricks to Acrylonitrile- butadiene-styrene polymer, that truly inspired an industry, particularly in the manufacture of custom size acrylic and acrylic displays.

As was the case with much of the next two decades in society, the 1960s and 1970s were all about the use of colour, which was propelled by the early 1960 development of water-based acrylic paints. The decade would end with plastics playing a prominent role in human history too, as Neil Armstrong planted a nylon American flag on the moon in 1969.

Another milestone for the industry was reached in 1976, as the great variety now available saw plastic become the most used material across the world. Just three years later, plastics would play a role in the introduction of the first mobile phones and the first PVC-U double glazed windows.

Modern day plastics

The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have seen the rate of development in plastics advance extremely quickly. This has involved the first human heart transplant, with a largely polyurethane implant in 1982, and the creation of the world’s first ‘plastic plane’, with the Boeing 787 being made of 50% of plastic composites.

With cut plastic sheeting now easy to manufacture and cost effective for everyone from small business owners to sign makers, the ways in which plastic continues to help the world move forward is going to be an exciting journey.

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