A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics

Bottles for recycling
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The first man-made plastic was created by Alexander Parkes who publicly demonstrated it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. The material, called Parkesine, was an organic material derived from cellulose that once heated could be molded and retained its shape when cooled.


Celluloid is derived from cellulose and alcoholized camphor. John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid as a substitute for the ivory in billiard balls in 1868. He first tried using a natural substance called collodion after spilling a bottle of it and discovering that the material dried into a tough and flexible film. However, the material was not strong enough to be used as a billiard ball, not until the addition of camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree. The new celluloid could now be molded with heat and pressure into a durable shape.

Besides billiard balls, celluloid became famous as the first flexible photographic film used for still photography and motion pictures. Hyatt created celluloid in a strip format for movie film. By 1900, movie film was an exploding market for celluloid.

Formaldehyde Resins - Bakelite

After cellulose nitrate, formaldehyde was the next product to advance the technology of plastic. Around 1897, efforts to manufacture white chalkboards led to casein plastics (milk protein mixed with formaldehyde) Galalith and Erinoid are two early tradename examples.

In 1899, Arthur Smith received British Patent 16,275, for "phenol-formaldehyde resins for use as an ebonite substitute in electrical insulation," the first patent for processing a formaldehyde resin. However, in 1907, Leo Hendrik Baekeland improved phenol-formaldehyde reaction techniques and invented the first fully synthetic resin to become commercially successful with the trade name Bakelite.

Here is a brief timeline of the evolution of plastics.

Timeline - Precursors

  • 1839 - Natural Rubber - Method of processing invented by Charles Goodyear
  • 1843 - Vulcanite - Invented by Thomas Hancock
  • 1843 - Gutta-Percha - Invented by William Montgomerie
  • 1856 - Shellac - Invented by Alfred Critchlow and Samuel Peck
  • 1856 - Bois Durci - Invented by Francois Charles Lepage

Timeline - Beginning of the Plastic Era with Semi-Synthetics

  • 1839 - Polystyrene or PS discovered by Eduard Simon
  • 1862 - Parkesine - Invented by Alexander Parkes
  • 1863 - Cellulose Nitrate or Celluloid - Invented by John Wesley Hyatt
  • 1872 - Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC - First created by Eugen Baumann
  • 1894 - Viscose Rayon - Invented by Charles Frederick Cross and Edward John Bevan

Timeline - Thermosetting Plastics and Thermoplastics

  • 1951 - High-density polyethylene or HDPE tradenamed Marlex - Invented by Paul Hogan and Robert Banks
  • 1951 - Polypropylene or PP - Invented by Paul Hogan and Robert Banks
  • 1953 - Saran Wrap introduced by Dow Chemicals.
  • 1954 - Styrofoam a type of foamed polystyrene foam was invented by Ray McIntire for Dow Chemicals
  • 1964 - Polyimide
  • 1970 - Thermoplastic Polyester this includes trademarked Dacron, Mylar, Melinex, Teijin, and Tetoron
  • 1978 - Linear Low-Density Polyethylene
  • 1985 - Liquid Crystal Polymers