Can you imagine life without plastic? Since World War II, plastic materials have slowly become a common element in our daily lives.  Many of the most familiar plastics are less than 100 years old.  Let’s take a look at the timeline for the invention of plastic materials.

1)      Parkesine

Invented in 1862 by Alexander Parkes, Parkesine was first made public at the Great International Exhibition in London. Parkes made this material from the cellulose found in the cell walls of plants.  Initially promoted as an inexpensive replacement for rubber, Parkesine was moldable, transparent and maintained its shape after cooling.

2)      Celluloid

Invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1865, celluloid was used initially in billiard balls. By the 1890s, manufacturers were using celluloid to create combs and bowls to imitate tortoiseshell, ivory and other expensive natural materials.

3)      Rayon

Rayon is modified cellulose created by purifying wood pulp into cellulose fibers that are woven into a fabric.  First invented in 1891 Paris by Louis Marie Hilaire Berniguat, rayon was promoted as a replacement for silk because of its shiny, filmy quality.  Incidentally, early rayon was highly flammable!

4)      Bakelite

Considered the first completely synthetic plastic material, Bakelite was invented in 1907. Bakelite amazed consumers and manufacturers alike by retaining its form and shape despite high temperatures and stress. By the 1930s, Bakelite clocks, jewelry and telephones gained in popularity due to the unique appearance.

5)      Cellophane

A Swiss chemist invented cellophane in 1912 as a waterproof table cloth. Later, Whitman’s used the product to wrap its candies.  Cellophane food packaging gained a place in every home after DuPont introduced a truly moisture resistant version in 1927.

6)      Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC, Vinyl)

Originally synthesized in 1872 but not commercially viable until 1926, PVC was initially developed as a substitute for rubber and quickly became popular because of its high versatility.  “Vinyl” records get their name from this material.  Today, PVC is popular in the medical and construction industries.

7)      Polyethylene

First discovered accidentally in 1898 by the German chemist Hans von Pechmann, polyethylene became widely commercially available in 1944.  Polyethylene is the most popular plastic today with a global production of approximately 80 million tons per year.  It is available in a variety of different densities and grades

8)      Polyvinylidene Chloride

Accidently discovered by a lab worker at Dow Chemical in 1933, polyvinylidene chloride was initially used by the military as a coating on fighter planes because of the material’s resistance to saltwater corrosion. Because of the product’s clingy nature, polyvinylidene chloride became popular as Saran Wrap, first released in 1953.

9)      Nylon

Nylon stockings, developed by DuPont, were unveiled at the New York’s World Fair in 1939. Soon, nylon replaced expensive silk in military applications and clothing during World War II.  Nylon is one of the most popular and inexpensive materials for plastic components today.

10)   Polyester

Made famous by the crazy fashion of the 80’s, the group of polymers known as polyester actually became commercially available in the 1950s. It gained fame as “Dacron,” marketed by DuPont as a new fabric and the first synthetic fabric that was washable.

As you can see, most plastic materials were developed as cheaper alternatives to precious natural materials.  Scientists and manufacturers continue to refine their products to meet demand, as we can see now with the advent of biodegradable and environmentally-friendly plasticsWho knows what the future will bring?

Would you like to know the history of a material I didn’t mention?  Ask me in the comments section below!

Interested in learning more about plastic materials?  Download our free guide!


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