Plastic is a general word describing synthetic or partly synthetic materials or objects. Plastic comes from a Greek word meaning “can be molded.” It refers to the ability to be molded during manufacture into a different shape. Hence the word “plasticity.”
Invention of Plastic
The first person who invented plastic was Alexander Parkes, a native of Birmingham, England. He called his work Parkesine after himself. The plastic he invented was organic. It was made from cellulose treated with a solvent and nitric acid. It could be molded into any shape when heated. When it cooled, the Parkesine plastic kept its shape. Parkes showed off his invention to the world in the Great International Exhibition in 1862. His plastic design won the bronze medal. Parkes thought that what he’d invented could replace rubber. But manufacturers soon grew cool to the Parkesine due to the high cost of its raw materials.
The next step in the invention of plastic occurred in the United States in the late 19th century. Billiards was getting very popular. Back then ivory was used to make billiard balls. Thousands of elephants were slaughtered only for their ivory tusks. Even back then it was impractical and expensive, not to mention cruel as later animal rights advocates would cry out. Then John Wesley Hyatt came to the rescue. One day as Hyatt was working in his shop, he spilled a bottle of collodion. When it dried, he discovered it was flexible yet strong. Hyatt experimented with his discovery. He found tat collodion by itself wasn’t tough enough for use in billiards. It was much too fragile. But when he added camphor to it, heated and then molded it, it became durable. Hyatt had invented celluloid plastic. His invention was later used to make flexible films and photographs, not just 9 or 8 balls for the pool table.
Invention of Bakelite Plastic
Even better than celluloid was the first 100% synthetic plastic: the baskelite plastic. Leo Baekeland discovered it in 1907 in New York. First he made an apparatus he called a Bakelizer that let him control pressure and heat when experimenting with chemicals. With this equipment he invented baskelite, a purely synthetic resin. Like older plastic materials, it had to be heated to be molded into a new shape. What made it unique was once the baskelite cooled down, it kept its shape forever. Nothing could alter its form no matter what. It was not biodegradable either.
Baskelite soon became the standard material for all kinds of industries. It was employed heavily during World War II in the making of weapons. Even today it is still used. Because it is durable, and resistant to heat, chemicals and electricity, it is ideal for household objects. Today it is impossible to go anywhere without seeing plastic.