Humanities › History & Culture A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics Share Flipboard Email Print Paul Taylor/Stone/Getty Images History & Culture Inventions Famous Inventions Famous Inventors Patents & Trademarks Invention Timelines Computers & The Internet American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Mary Bellis Mary Bellis Inventions Expert Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell. Learn about our Editorial Process Updated on January 28, 2020 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 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 without the addition of camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree—celluloid was created when these were combined. The new celluloid could 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 the invention of 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 under the trade name Bakelite. Timeline Here is a brief timeline of the evolution of plastics. 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 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 Thermosetting Plastics and Thermoplastics 1908 - Cellophane - Invented by Jacques E. Brandenberger 1909 - First true plastic Phenol-Formaldehyde (trade name Bakelite) - Invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland 1926 - Vinyl or PVC - Walter Semon invented a plasticized PVC 1933 - Polyvinylidene chloride or Saran, also called PVDC - Accidentally discovered by Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker 1935 - Low-density polyethylene or LDPE - Invented by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett 1936 - Acrylic or Polymethyl Methacrylate 1937 - Polyurethanes (trade-named Igamid for plastics materials and Perlon for fibers) - Otto Bayer and co-workers discovered and patented the chemistry of polyurethanes 1938 - Polystyrene made practical 1938 - Polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE (trade-named Teflon) - Invented by Roy Plunkett 1939 - Nylon and Neoprene - Considered a replacement for silk and a synthetic rubber respectively, invented by Wallace Hume Carothers 1941 - Polyethylene Terephthalate or Pet - Invented by Whinfield and Dickson 1942 - Low-Density Polyethylene 1942 - Unsaturated Polyester also called PET - Patented by John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson 1951 - High-density polyethylene or HDPE (trade-named 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) - Invented by Ray McIntire for Dow Chemical 1964 - Polyimide 1970 - Thermoplastic Polyester - this includes trademarked Dacron, Mylar, Melinex, Teijin, and Tetoron 1978 - Linear Low-Density Polyethylene 1985 - Liquid Crystal Polymers Cite this Article Format mla apa chicago Your Citation Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-plastics-1992322. Bellis, Mary. (2021, July 31). A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-plastics-1992322 Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-plastics-1992322 (accessed December 9, 2022). copy citation Watch Now: Which Plastics Are Safe?