History of plasticsSince World War II, plastics have become an integral part of everyday life. Nearly everything we touch and use contains some kind of plastic. The history of plastics is fascinating.  Below is a timeline that highlights some of the most important plastic developments in the last 150 years.  Note how many generic plastics have a familiar trade name, like Teflon and Styrofoam.  Also interesting is how many popular plastics were actually discovered by accident!


Early Years of Plastics

1862 – Parkesine–The first man-made plastic.  Created by Alexander Parkes in 1862 in London, it is an organic material derived from cellulose.  Once heated and molded, it retained its shape when cooled.

1863 – Cellulose Nitrate or Celluloid – Created by John Wesley Hyatt as a substitute for the ivory in billiard balls.  Celluloid also became famous as the first flexible photographic film used for still photography and motion pictures.

1872 – Polyvinyl Chloride (or PVC) – First created by German chemist Eugen Baumann who never applied for a patent.  In 1913, another German named Friedrich Klatte invented a new method of the polymerization of vinyl chloride using sunlight.  He was the first inventor to receive a patent for PVC. However, no useful purpose for PVC was found until Waldo Semon came along in 1926 and made improvements.

Pre-World War II Discoveries

1908 – Cellophane ® – Swiss textile engineer Jacques E. Brandenberger first thought of the idea for a clear, protective, packaging layer in 1900.  He developed the first machine to manufacture transparent sheets of regenerated cellulose in 1908.  The first U.S. customer for Cellophane film was the Whitman’s candy company who used it to wrap chocolates.

1909 – Bakelite – One of the first plastics made from synthetic components, Bakelite was developed by Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland in New York. A thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, Bakelite is used for its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings, and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems and children’s toys.

Golf-balls-made-from-vinyl1926 – Vinyl or PVC – Invented in the U.S. by Walter Semon, a researcher with B.F. Goodrich, vinyl was first used for golf balls and shoe heels. Today, vinyl is the second most produced plastic in the world and is used in hundreds of items including shower curtains, raincoats, wires, appliances, floor tiles, paints and surface coatings.

1933 – Polyvinylidene Chloride or Saran (also called PVDC) — Accidentally discovered by Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker, PVDC was first used by the military to spray on fighter planes to guard against salty sea spray. Carmakers also used it for upholstery.  After World War II, Dow got rid of Saran’s green color and unpleasant odor and it was approved for food packaging.  In 1953, it was marketed to consumers under the brand name Saran Wrap® film.

1935 — Low-Density Polyethylene or LDPE – This material was discovered by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett at the British industrial giant Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and evolved into two forms:  low density polyethylene (LDPE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE). Polyethylene is cheap, flexible, durable, and chemically resistant.  LDPE is used to make films and packaging materials, including plastic bags.  HDPE is used more often to make containers, plumbing and automotive fittings.

Lite-Brite-made-with-1-inch-acrylic-rods1936 — Polymethyl Methacrylate Acrylic — By 1936, American, British, and German companies were producing “polymethyl methacrylate” (PMMA), better known as “acrylic.”  Although acrylics are now well-known for their use in paints and synthetic fibers, in their sheet form they are actually very hard and more transparent than glass, and are sold as glass replacements under trade names such as “Plexiglas” and “Lucite.”

1937 – Polyurethanes – An organic polymer that was invented by Friedrich Bayer & Company of Germany, polyurethanes are used in the form of flexible foams in upholstery, mattresses, earplugs, chemical-resistant coatings, specialty adhesives and sealants and packaging. It also comes in a rigid form and is used in insulation for buildings, water heaters, refrigerated transport and commercial and residential refrigeration. Polyurethanes are sold under trade names Igamid® for plastics materials and Perlon® for fibers.

1938 – Polystyrene made practical – First discovered in 1839 by a German apothecary called Eduard Simon, it wasn’t used until the 1930s when the scientists at BASF developed a way to commercially manufacture it. Polystyrene is a strong plastic that can be injected, extruded, or blow molded.  Popular uses include beverage cups, egg cartons and packaging peanuts, as well as building materials and electrical appliances (light switches and plates).

1938 – Polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE – Teflon was discovered by a DuPont chemist name Roy Plunkett by accident.  PTFE was one of the most impressive plastics used in the war (and a top secret!) that was deposited on metal surfaces as a scratchproof and corrosion-resistant, low-friction protective coating.  By the early 1960s, Teflon “non-stick” frying pans were a hot consumer item. PTFE was later used to synthesize the miracle fabric “Gore-Tex.”  PTFE mixed with fluorine compounds is used to make decoy flares dropped by aircraft to distract heat-seeking missiles.

1938 – Nylon and Neoprene – Both materials were developed by Wallace Crothers whose DuPont research team was looking for a synthetic replacement for silk.  Neoprene, a synthetic rubber, was first manufactured in 1931.  Further research on polymers led to the development of nylon, also known as “the miracle fiber.”  DuPont first announced and demonstrated nylon and nylon stockings to the American public at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Other early uses for nylon were fishing line, surgical sutures and toothbrush bristles.

1942 – Unsaturated Polyester or PET (used in Polyester, Dacron and Mylar) – Patented by English chemists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, “polyethylene terephthalate” (PET or PETE) was used to make synthetic fibers sold in the postwar era.  Because it is more impermeable than other low-cost plastics, PET is a popular material used in making bottles for carbonated and acidic drinks.  And because it is also strong and abrasion resistant, it is used to make mechanical parts, food trays, and other items that have to endure abuse. PET films, trade-named “Mylar,” are used to make recording tape.

Post World War II Milestones

HDPE-soda-bottles1951 – HDPE (high-density polyethylene or PP) — Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, two American chemists working for Phillips Petroleum of the Netherlands, invented a way to manufacture crystalline polypropylene and HDPE.  Polypropylene is similar to its ancestor polyethylene and shares polyethylene’s low cost, but it is much more robust and is used in everything from plastic bottles to carpets to plastic furniture, and is very heavily used in automobiles.

1954 – Styrofoam (foamed polystyrene) – Styrofoam is the trademark of the Dow Chemical Company.  It was invented by company scientist Ray McIntire by accident while trying to find a flexible electrical insulator by combining styrene with isobutylene, a volatile liquid, under pressure. The result was a foam polystyrene with bubbles that is 30 times lighter than regular polystyrene.

Plastics are Everywhere

Take a look around the room that you are sitting in right now and count how many things are made entirely or partially of plastic.  You’ll immediately see how ubiquitous plastic is.  Plastics really are everywhere!

If you have any milestones to add to our “History of Plastics” chronology, please use the “Comments” box below.  And if you have a question about any of these materials mentioned in this article, contact one of the plastics experts at E&T.


4 Responses to “The History of Plastics”

  • Bridget Willard says:

    August 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I didn’t realize that Styrofoam was a trademark.

      Pam Aungst says:

      August 23, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      It’s like a Kleenex-tissues type of thing!

  • Paula Hynes says:

    August 21, 2012 at 10:00 am

    I would love to re-post this info on our blog Just did an article about the use of plastics (specifically Rodon Plastic parts) in our homes. This would be a great follow-up article.

      Pam Aungst says:

      August 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      Hi Paula,

      We would be happy to have you link to our article. We would prefer a link as opposed to copying and pasting it to another blog.


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