The Plastic Time Line & History

c.1000 BC
Lacquer work – A resin from a lacquer tree (Rhus vernicflua) this has been used by the Chinese since 1000 BC to form waterproof and durable coatings and until the 1950s used to coat domestic tableware.

Amber – Amber is a thermoplastic resin from fossilized trees and is found mainly on the Baltic Coast. The material can be mixed into lacquers or small pieces pressed into compression moulds to produce small articles. Amber is described by Pliny the Elder (23 – 79) in the work Natural History.

Horn – This behaves like a typical thermoplastic sheet and can be split and moulded into shape after heating in hot water. Layers can also be laminated together to build thicker products or pressed into wooden moulds to form snuff boxes or buttons. The raw material can also be ground up and mixed with a binder (such as blood) before being compression moulded for buttons and other products.

Tortoiseshell – This is actually the shell of a turtle but it can be cut and shaped, similar to horn, to keep an attractive pattern for a variety of articles.

Gutta percha – A natural resin from the bark of Malayan trees.

First recorded mention of the Horners Company. The Horners Company of London (one of the Royal Livery Companies) is regarded as the first plastics trade association and even today retains links with the British Plastics Federation via the annual Horners Award.

Valdes describes first reference to natural rubber in reports of expeditions to Central America. The native Indians used the material for sports and waterproofing.

John Huyglen von Linschoeten, after visiting India, describes the use of shellac.

Horners Company receives Royal Charter.

John Tradescant introduces gutta percha to the West after his travels in the East collecting plants. Gutta percha was used to make products from garden hoses to furniture for many years after the introduction to the West and was only replaced for undersea cable insulation in the 1940’s.

London is established as an important horn moulding centre with metal dies being manufactured for snuff boxes.

Charles Marie de la Condamine reports natives in Amazon basin using rubber for waterproofing and flexible bottles. Rubber imported into Europe in 1736 but evidence suggests that it was in use by the natives for several thousand years.  la Condamine led an expedition to Peru (now part of Ecuador) to measure the size and shape of the Earth, he was scarred by smallpox and shy of women but led an expedition of French scientists into the jungles to ‘advance the art of doing science’ – in the process they introduced rubber to Europe, investigated the uses of quinine and discover platinum as well as advocating the standard measure that would lead to the metre – true heroes in the jungle.

Thomas Hancock (Britain) discovers that if strongly processed (masticated) then rubber became plastic and could be made to flow and develops the method of milling rubber.

Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh begins using rubber to waterproof fabrics – the Macintosh is born!

Friedrich Ludersdorf and Nathaniel Hayward independently discover that adding sulfur to raw rubber helped prevent the material from becoming sticky when heated by warm weather.

Regnault reports first production of vinyl chloride monomer.

Thomas Hancock and Charles Goodyear perfect the vulcanization process of cooking rubber in sulfur which joined separate isoprene polymers improving the material’s structural integrity and its other properties. This made way for a wide range of objects including the Tyre. Vulcanization is named after the god, Vulcan, who used both sulphur and heat.

Bewley applies an existing extrusion process to the production of gutta percha tubes for the first submarine telegraph cable.

Samuel Peck patents the method of mixing shellac with wood to make the predecessor of today’s framed family photographs.

Alexander Parkes develops a synthetic ivory named pyroxlin, which he calls Parkesine. Parkesine is made from cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent. The result is a hard dough, ivory-like material that could be molded when heated.

John Hyatt discovers that camphor works better as a solvent and proceeds to design much of the basic industrial machinery needed to produce plastic materials. Since cellulose was the main element used in the synthesis of his new material, he calls it celluloid. Hyatt’s engineer, Charles Burroughs, designs specialized tools and machinery for celluloid production. His stuffing machine is patented in 1872 and is considered the predecessor of the modern injection moulding machine.

Cellulose Nitrate

John W. Hyatt created a plastic celluloid replacement for ivory in billiard balls. He began by using collodon to make the balls, but they exploded when two balls collided. The solution was the addition of camphor. The billiard balls were the first commercial use of plastic

Rayon was discovered by Louis Marie Hilaire Bernigaut, the Count of Chardonnet. He was trying to create a synthetic silk. Unfortunately, the rayon he created was highly flammable; Charles Topham later fixed this problem.

Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle patent a new artificial silk called rayon and sell the rights for the new fabric to the French Government. Cheap and smooth on the skin, rayon is weak when wet and is easily creased. Also produced in a transparent sheet called cellophane.

John Hyatt uses celluloid to fabricate a material in a strip format for movie film.

Leo Hendrik Baekelund finds that mixtures of phenol and formaldehyde produce an extremely hard material when heated, mixed and allowed to cool. Known as phenolic or phenol-formaldehyde he calls the new material bakelite and is the first synthetic thermosetting resin.

Our modern society has now embraced plastic as part of everyday life. Cellophane was developed by Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger. In 1900, he came up with the idea for a clear packaging layer for food, and 13 years later he created the first fully waterproof, flexible wrap made from viscose that had innumerable applications in everyday life.

Improvements in chemical technology lead to an explosion in the development of new plastic resins. Among the earliest examples are polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), developed by the I.G. Farben company of Germany. Polystyrene is a rigid, brittle plastic that is the basis for one of the most popular plastics known as styrofoam.

An accident led to the development of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) by Waldo Semon. While attempting to bind metal to rubber he discovered a material that was durable, fire resistant, inexpensive and easily molded. When added to fabric it yielded a material that elongated the average life span of upholstery.

Wallace Carothers develops the first molecular design of materials. His work leads to the discovery of a synthetic nylon fiber. The first applications are the bristles for toothbrushes and a replacement for silk, namely nylon.

Polyamide – or nylon. the first purely synthetic fiber, is introduced by the Du Pont Corporation at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett discover polyethylene (PE) at the British industrial giant Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Polyethylene evolves into 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, while HDPE is used more often to make pipe, containers, plumbing, and automotive fittings.

German chemists synthesize the first of a series of synthetic rubbers that eventually become the basis for synthetic rubber production during World War II. By 1942 rubber production is mostly under Japanese control.

American, British, and German companies produce polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), better known as acrylic. As hard and more transparent than glass, acrylic is sold as a replacement for glass under the name of plexiglas.

Roy Plunkett discovers teflon by accident in 1938. Used to refine uranium for the atomic bomb. By the 1960s, Teflon “non-stick” frying pans and dental floss are all the rage. Is used to synthesize the miracle fabric GoreTex which can be used to make rain coats that breathe keeping you moisture free.

I.G. Farben Industries of Germany file a patent for polyepoxide or epoxy. As a thermoset plastic that cures when a “hardener” is added, epoxies come into wide use as coatings and super glues.

Rex Whinfield and James Dickson develope polyethylene terephthalate or PET. Used for synthetic fibers in the postwar era under names like polyester, PET is more impermeable and abrasion resistant than other low-cost plastics. Is best known for its use in making bottles for Coke and popular soft drinks.

A total of 50 factories in the United States are manufacturing rubber, producing twice as much as the world’s natural rubber production before the beginning of the war.

When exposed to fluorine gas it is discovered that polyethylene becomes a much more robust polyfluoroethylene. Experiments with polyethylene lead to another material known as polypropylene (PP). It is used in everything from plastic bottles to carpets to plastic furniture, and is very heavily used in automobiles. Earl Tupper’s tupperware features a complete line of sealable polyethylene food containers that Tupper cleverly promoted through a network of housewives who sold Tupperware as a means of bringing in some money.

George de Maestral noticed that many natural plants used tiny hooks to affix themselves to other materials. He planned to replicate this phenomena using nylon materials. Velcro was created. It was a success as it did not rot, degrade and was inexpensive to produce.

1950 – 60
As plastics continue to improve and so much of the environment is moulded, fabricated and constructed of plastics that we hardly notice its existence. The Synthetic Age is upon us.

Warner Lambert develops Novon – a starch which is also an injection mouldable plastic, ICI launches Biopol. Both are bio-degradeable plastics.

The Development of Plastic
Date Material
1868 Cellulose Nitrate
1909 Phenol-Formaldehyde
1927 Cellulose Acetate
1927 Polyvinyl Chloride
1929 Urea Formaldehyde
1935 Ethyl Cellulose
1936 Acrylic
1936 Polyvinyl Acetate
1938 Nylon
1942 Polyester
1943 Silicone
1947 Epoxy



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