The History of Plastic


Throughout the course of American history, no other invention has changed the course of the country as much as plastic has. This resilient material is ingrained throughout our everyday life and it is in use in every single industry.

Surprisingly, even though the plastic we know today wasn’t really developed until after 1910, the natural materials used to make plastic were used as the plastic of their day as far back as Old Testament times.    

Plastic’s Innovative Origins

The plastic we know and love today has its origins in the rubber industry of the 1800s. In 1851, a material known as ebonite, or “hard” rubber, was discovered. This material was the first thermosetting material to be prepared and the first to involve a distinct chemical modification of a natural material.

Due to the fact that ebonite wasn’t used in a commercial means for several years after its discovery, it is often overlooked as being instrumental in the evolution of modern plastic. It wasn’t until the 1860s, when John Wesley Hyatt started researching cellulose nitrate, that the progression really started taking hold.

Plastic’s Unveiling at the 1862 Great Exhibition in London

While advances in rubber technology were taking place in America, Europe would see Schonbein establishing conditions of controlled nitration of cellulose, which at the time became of interest as an explosive.  Then, in the 1850s, an English inventor named Alexander Parkes discovered that the evaporation of the solvent of photographic collodion left a solid residue that he described as a “hard, horny elastic and waterproof substance.” Later, he would patent the process of waterproofing woven fabrics using the elastic material.

At the 1862 Great Exhibition in London, Parkes would introduce his latest creation, Parkesine, a mixture that when placed on a heated rolling machine could be shaped by the pressure. Parkes would go on to found the Parkesine Company but the company would fail within two years after Parkes tried to reduce production costs by producing inferior products.

A year later, Daniel Spill, who was an associate of Parkes’, would form the Xylonite Company with the intention of producing products similar to those of Parkesine. The Xylonite Company would also fall victim to the poor economy of the times, but Daniel Spill wouldn’t be deterred. He moved his company to a new site, renamed it the Daniel Spill Company, and started production of his own material, which he called Xylonite.

The Introduction of Formaldehyde Resins

As important as the work of inventors like Hyatt, Spills, and others was for the evolution of plastic, it wasn’t until the development of formaldehyde resins that things really started to change for the industry. This came to be in 1897, when German schools started demanding white chalkboards.

In trying to meet this demand, German scientists wound up discovering casein plastics, which were produced by reacting casein (milk protein) with formaldehyde. In 1899, Arthur Smith would take out a patent in Britain for the use of phenol-formaldehyde resins as a substitute for ebonite in electrical insulation.

Then, in 1907 Leo Hendrik Baekeland discovered techniques to control and modify phenol-formaldehyde resins so that products could be made from it. This resulted in “phenolics” becoming the first commercially successful fully synthetic resin. Due to the success of phenolic moldings, researchers started testing mixtures of formaldehyde with other materials, like urea and thiourea. These materials made it possible for products to be molded into light-colored items. These mixes proved so successful that they are still in use today to make things like molding powders, adhesives, textile and paper finishing, and decorative laminates.

The Progression of Modern Plastic

In 1927, cellulose acetate was introduced as a molding compound. This paved the way for the development of today’s most common thermoplastics – polyvinyl chloride, low density polyethylene, polystyrene, and polymethyl methacrylate.

After the start of World War II, the demand for plastics would escalate. The United States would start doing extensive research into plastics and rubbers and eventually, even more varieties of plastic would be created. After World War II, the U.S. would see the development of polypropylene and high density polyethylene. This would wind up promoting even further growth of the new plastics throughout almost every industry.

Need Plastic Rod or Tube for a Custom Application? Call US Cast Today

The plastic industry has undergone some incredible advancements and it continues to strive for innovation every day. For even more information about the history of plastic, visit the National Plastics Center and Museum.

US Cast is one of the country’s leading manufacturers of plastic rod and tubes. If you have a need for custom-fabricated plastic, we can help.

To learn more about the quality of our premium plastic rods and tubes or to place a custom order, just give us a call today at 856-347-2342 or connect with us on Facebook. We look forward to helping you.


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