History of Plastic

The plastics industry is one of the most productive industries in current society. However, it did not enjoy immediate success. The first companies that manufactured plastics failed. The success of the plastics industry required years of research, along with the development of new chemical processes. The history of plastics as we know them today can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century.

Historians disagree with regard to the exact year that the plastics industry came into existence. Plastic developed as a response to the development of hard rubber, which was first discovered in 1851. Rubber was the first man-made material created through the modification of a material that exists in nature. At the same time that scientists were developing rubber technology, other scientists were working toward new discoveries involving cellulose. Researchers were first interested in collodion, a substance created from the mixture of an alcohol-ether solution and cellulose. However, Alexander Parkes, an English inventor, discovered that the hard residue remaining after the substance evaporated was waterproof. This residue was one of the first true "plastics."

By 1856, Parkes had earned a patent for waterproofing fabrics using the plastic residue he discovered. In 1862, Parkes created a new material known as "Parkesine." To create this produce, Parkes mixed a small amount of solvent with cellulose nitrate, put it through a heated rolling machine, and shaped it with pressure. Parkes attempted to manufacture products with this material, but his company dissolved in 1868. One year later, Parkes' associate Daniel Spill created a new company to manufacture similar products. His company also failed in 1874. Spill then created a second company to continue the production of his product, which he called "xylonite."

In the 1860s, a man named John Wesley Hyatt brought plastics production to the United States. In the second half of the decade, he created and patented a collodion material that he used to coat billiard balls. Hyatt and his brother later took out a patent for the process of combining camphor and cellulose nitrate to produce a plastic-like product. Their product was successful, and they gave it the name "celluloid."

In 1897, a need for white chalkboards arose in German schools. When scientists were trying to produce such a board, they discovered casein plastics. These plastics are created by mixing formaldehyde with the milk protein casein. The material, called Erinoid or Galalith, was soon manufactured. Today, casein plastics are still used to create buttons. In 1899, another British inventor created a plastic product known as phenol-formaldehyde resin, which he marketed as a substitute for electrical insulation made with ebonite. In the early 1900s, scientists discovered ways to better control the reaction used to make this product. The new-found control allowed them to create superior synthetic resins that could be used to make a variety of products for commercial sale.

The era of modern plastics began in 1927 when scientists developed a thermoplastic known as cellulose acetate. During the 1930s and 1940s, thermoplastics such as polymethyl methacrylate, polystyrene, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride were developed. During World War II, the demand for plastics skyrocketed due to a shortage of natural rubber. As scientists tried to produce more rubber, they also researched the development of new plastic materials.

Following World War II, higher density polyethylene and polypropylene were invented, allowing plastics to be used for many more purposes. In 1978, scientists introduced linear low-density polyethylene. Production practices improved, and the cost of produced plastics was reduced. This allowed plastics to compete with traditional materials such as leather, glass, metal, paper, and wood. The demand for products made from plastic steadily grew, and plastics became accepted as a basic production material.

Though plastics began as a commercially unsuccessful product, they eventually became an irreplaceable product on which many industries rely. In today's world, plastics are one of the most commonly-used materials for commercial purposes. Plastics have made important contributions to a variety of different industries. For example, the automobile industry relies on plastic materials to reduce the weight of their products, as well as to lower production expenses. Though most of the important developments in the plastics industry did not occur until after 1910, they would never have been possible without the extensive research conducted by scientists in the 1800s.

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