Plastic serves many uses in our day-to-day lives. It is used to store liquids such as detergent, shampoo, and fruit juices. It also helps us keep our food fresh and edible for longer. Without this flexible material, we wouldn’t have CDs, eyeglasses, or even shower curtains! This makes one wonder how we survived before this revolutionary material.
Better yet, where did it come from? Who came up with the idea of plastic and made it a reality? Was it a long process of trial and error, or was it stumbled upon by accident like many of the world’s inventions? What was this polymeric material original purpose, and how did it become so popular?
The Early Days of Plastic
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In 1856, an English metallurgist named Alexander Parkes created a synthetic form of what we know today as plastic. His compound was made by dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol and camphor containing ether.
Parkes noticed this new compound could be used in building materials, and was malleable when hot, but was tough as a cold solid. Parkes, who had many inventions throughout his life, named his discovery Parkesine.
Over the next few decades, Parkes patented his creation and began showcasing it throughout London at trade shows and conferences. One of these showcases led to the success of kitchen utensils made by Parkes.
In 1886, he started his Parkesine company, and with the help of his colleague Daniel Spill, was able to discover more used for Parkesine. Sadly, just two years later, Parkes sold the company to Spills to avoid bankruptcy and would not live to see his invention’s further development and success. Parkesine was used by John Wesley Hyatt to create celluloid, which was commonly used in the film industry.
Plastic in the 20th Century
The use of plastic had a small impact in the late 1800s, but at the turn of the new century, it seemed to make a comeback and people saw many more uses for it. One of the most important people in the creation and industrialization of polymers, Leo Baekeland, took plastic to a whole new level.
Baekeland was a Belgian-born American chemist who used the primitive form of polymeric material, Parkesine, to create a tougher, more sustainable compound known as Bakelite in 1907. Baekeland created Bakelite from phenol and formaldehyde and it immediately became a household name.
Bakelite, unlike Parkesine, was known to retain its shape even when exposed to high heat. This characteristic made it possible for the compound to be used in radios, telephones, and insulators.
From the time Baekeland patented his product in 1909 to the time of his death in 1944, over 175,000 tons of Bakelite were made, leading to the creation of over 15,000 different products.
Today, almost everything can be made from plastic. We have phone cases, plumbing pipes, and rain coats thanks to the men behind the several versions of polymer. Because of this flexible material’s durability, cost effectiveness, and longevity, there’s a polymeric material product almost everywhere you look.