What is the history of Plastics?

History of Plastics  With the growth of the industry, year by year, to the point that we are now , such that plastics are an essential part of our lives it is startling to realize that the plastics industry first saw the light of day in the year 1862. It was during that year that Alexander Parkes displayed to the public at the Great international Exhibition in London a material called ‘Parkesine”, which was in fact cellulose nitrate. A great future was predicted for this material and the information published at the time read in a similar vein to the data sheets which accompany newly released plastics material today. At more or less the same time, but independently, an American John Wesley Hyatt, experimented with cellulose nitrate as a substitute for ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls and laid the foundations of the technology of celluloid. In spite of its flammability, cellulose nitrate remained a major raw material until the mid 1920’s when, due to the availability of alternative materials, its use declined.

The other person upon whom historians place the honour of founding the industry is Dr Leo Hendrick Baekeland, who took out the first of 119 patents on plastics based on phenol formaldehyde resins in February 1907. These :Bakelite” materials are, even today, important engineering plastics. The development of additional materials continued, and the industry really began to blossom in the late 1930’s. The chemistry for nylons, urethanes and fluorocarbons (Teflon®) plastics were developed; the production of cellulose acetate, melamine and styrene moulding compounds began; equipment to perform the moulding and vacuum forming processes was made commercially available.

Acrylic sheet was widely used in aircraft windows and canopies during World War II as a replacement for glass because of the dangers of glass shattering under attack. A transparent polyester resin (CR-39), vinylidene chloride film (Saran®), polyethylene bottles and cellulose acetate toothpaste tubes were manufactured during this time period.

The postwar era saw the introduction of vinyl resins, the use of vinyl films, the introduction of moulded automotive acrylic taillights and back lit signs, and the development of the first etched circuit boards. The injection moulding process entered production. Due to the newness of the materials, the properties and behaviour of the plastic materials were not completely understood and many products failed, creating a negative impression about plastics in the public’s mind. Occasionally, plastics are still improperly used and draw negative comments. It is frequently forgotten that materials don’t fail, designs do, and the thousands of successful applications that contribute to the quality of our life are seldom noticed and are taken for granted.

Chemists continued the development of materials such as ABS, acetals, polyvinyl fluoride, ionomers and polycarbonate. The injection moulding and casting processes were all improved. This allowed the industry to provide an even greater number of cost effective products suitable for many more demanding engineering applications. The number of variations or formulations possible by combining the many chemical elements is virtually endless. This variety also makes the job of selecting the best material for a given application a challenge. The plastics industry provides a dynamic and exciting opportunity.