Plastic Fantastic

A Brief History of Plastic

Alexander Parkes was born in 1813 in Birmingham, growing up amidst ideology and invention although he was not specifically a chemistry and physics scholar. By studying cellulose nitrate, obtained in 1845 at Basle by C.F.Schönbein, Parkes developed a new material which could be used in a solid, plastic of fluid state, which was at times rigid like ivory, opaque, flexible, water-resistant, colourable and could be used for utensils and tools like metals, compression moulding, laminating. Its inventor described Parkesine in these words – patented in 1861 – in a publicity handout of 1862 at the Great London Exhibition, where, for the first time, examples appeared of that which we could justly call the original plastic material, the head of a large polymer family which today has hundreds of members.

Similar demands for the research of new materials urged a young printer from Starkey in the United States to follow in the footsteps of Parkes. John Wesley Hyatt had read a Phelan and Collander poster in Albany, New York, announcing a prize of $ 10,000 for anyone capable of producing a new material which could replace the ivory used for billiard balls, which was becoming scarcer. So from 1863 Hyatt threw himself head-first into the search for “artificial ivory” or any new material which could meet the industrial demands. In 1869 he was successful with a compound with a base of cellulose nitrate, just as Parkes had been before him. Celluloid was thus born and patented on 12th July 1870.

The first factory of this new artificial plastic was called Albany Dental Plate Company and was founded in 1870. Its name is due to the fact that one of the first uses of Celluloid was to make dental impressions and dentists were happy to replace expensive vulcanized rubber with it. Two years later the Dental Plate Company became the Celluloid Manufacturing Company with a factory at Newark, New Jersey. This was the first time – 1872 – that the term Celluloid appeared (derived obviously from Cellulose) a trade mark destined to have great success in the following years becoming a common name in the design of plastic materials with a cellulose base and other materials.

The first artificial plastics had great success but they were destined to be obscured by the advent of a new material of synthetic origin: the Bakelite. For nearly half a century Bakelite dominated the field of plastics disclosing a number of applications in practially all fields of industrial technology. We dare say that Bakelite opened the age of plastics. Bakelite was the first thermo setting resin to be developed and was obtained by making phenol and formaldehyde react. The result of the reaction is the formation of a resin which changes into plastic state becase of heat and thus can be worked in moulds to produce articles of different shapes. If the heating treatment in the mould is made longer, the material hardens and retains the shape it has been given. It is for this reason that it is called thermosetting resin.

The inventor of Bakelite was Leo Hendrick Baekeland, who was born at Gand (Belgium) on November 14, 1863. At the age of twenty-six, he was professor of chemistry at the University of his town. Having gained a scholarship, Baekeland spent a few years in various British Universities. But he did not like very much the academic milieu, and, in 1891, he emigrated to the United States. Initially, he worked with Anthony & Co. – an industry of photographic material – then he established the Nepera Chemical Co. which was then purchased by Eastman Kodak for US$750,000, a large amount of money at that time. This made it unnecessary for the 36-year-old Belgian chemist to earn his livelihood. But he was no character to rest on his laurels. About 1900, he began making experiments with the electrolytic cells. At once, he realized that replacing the sheets made out of paper and asbestos with another material would neatly improve the yield of the cells; thus, he tried to obtain, from phenol and formaldehyde condensation, a resin product similar to shellac and Ebonite. The result was Bakelite.

“Before the end of 1907”, wrote Baekeland, “I had started the limited-scale production of the new material but, in 1910, I established the General Bakelite Company for the production of the new synthetic resin. From the United States, the new industry spread very quickly to the other industrial countries”. In 1936 over 90,000 tons of Bakelite was being produced yearly all over the world, whereas the total volume of plastics (Celluloid, casein, phenolic resins) was about 250,000 tons. When Baekeland died, in 1944, the world production of phenolic resins had risen to 175,000 tons.


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