The story of Plastics owes its life to an accident. A man named Alexander Parkes had cut himself and was looking for collodion in his medicine cabinet. He discovered that contact with the air had gelled it into a strong, flexible substance.

After many experiments (the mixtures would explode when heated), he finally produced a compound of collodion, camphor, and ethanol, which he called Parkesine. Until this moment in our development we had made our tools and textiles exclusively from materials found in nature: clay and wood, animal skins and bones, metal and cotton, wool, leather, fur and silk. Parkesine was thus the first manufactured material, but as it was made from elements found in nature, it was not a synthetic material.

Some might argue that the prize for the first man-made substance should go to Bronze, traditionally an alloy of about 8 parts of Copper to 1 of Tin, as it is known to have been used for 3,000 years. I awarded Parkesine the prize however, as Bronze was still a metal, while Parkes’ compound was a new material with very different properties.

Across the Atlantic in 1867, the identical accident would save thousands of elephants: the game of billiards had become so popular that hundreds of elephants were being killed, to turn their tusks into billiard balls. An American, John Wesley Hyatt, spilled a bottle of collodion in his workshop, discovered the same substance that Parkes’ discovered and eventually produced billiard balls using collodion as a substitute for ivory. Unfortunately the mixture was still volatile and the balls exploded on contact with each other. Hyatt too found that adding camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree, solved the problem and he called his material Celluloid.

The title for the world’s first totally synthetic substance goes to Bakelite, invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a New York chemist. Next was Cellophane invented by Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, a Swiss textile engineer, who thought of the idea in 1900, but needed 13 years to develop the first fully flexible, waterproof covering.

In 1935 a Dupont chemist called Wallace Carothers produced what he called Fiber 66, later known as Nylon (the stockings replaced silk versions in 1939), and Waldo Semon, a B.F. Goodrich organic chemist, invented polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or vinyl. In 1933, Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker, accidentally discovered yet another plastic — polyvinylidene chloride, better known today as Saran and in 1938 a Dupont chemist named Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon. Many of these developments, along with corresponding advances in engineering skills, led to the development of the first Zip-Loc™ bag.

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