Plastic is a synthetic material made from the small molecules of organic compounds. The widespread use of plastics today makes it hard to believe that the first major breakthrough in plastic development did not occur until 1862. Once this breakthrough occurred, other inventors experimented with organic materials to create new and better versions. Plastic is now found in water bottles, food storage containers, grocery bags, and countless other products. Its widespread use makes it one of the most versatile materials in the world.


Alexander Parkes invented the first man-made plastic in 1856. Parkes worked in the electroplating department of a brass lock manufacturing company where he developed the skills he would later use in creating his inventions. One of his most important patents was for Parkesine, a celluloid-based thermoplastic that was treated with several solvents. As the first man-made plastic, Parkesine was very useful and had many features similar to that of modern plastic. After inventing Parkesine, Alexander Parkes opened the Parkesine Company and tried to mass-produce his invention. Unfortunately, the company failed because Parkes tried to reduce costs by using cheap, low-quality materials. Although the company failed, other companies continued to produce and sell celluloid.


The invention of celluloid was one of the most controversial developments in the history of plastic production. John Wesley Hyatt and his brother Isaac conducted several experiments using Parkesine as a substitute for the ivory that was once used to make billiard balls. After many experiments, Hyatt eventually produced a solid nitrocellulose. He patented the product in 1869 and formed the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870. Hyatt used his company to produce false teeth, billiard balls, and piano keys. This development became controversial when Daniel Spill, an English inventor, filed several court cases against Hyatt. Spill patented the same substance in the United Kingdom, making it difficult to determine who should own the rights. These cases eventually went to court, where it was decided that Parkes really invented celluloid. However, the judge determined that all celluloid manufacturing could continue.


In 1907, Leo Baekeland developed the first completely synthetic plastic. Baekeland was a Belgian chemist who set up his own consulting business in 1881. After setting up this business, he turned his attention toward producing photographic paper. He and Leonardi Jacobi formed the Nepera Chemical Company together, but there were no buyers for his products. His luck changed when George Eastman offered him $1 million for his process. He used the money from this business deal to fund his other inventions; one of which was Bakelite plastic.

Made from coal tar resin, Bakelite took on the shape of its container as it hardened. This invention was an improvement on earlier plastics because Bakelite did not melt under heat or stress. This made it suitable for making clock cases, radio cases, and jewelry that would withstand high temperatures. Bakelite also had several industrial applications due to its high resistance to heat, electricity, and chemical action. Electrical and automobile companies used this material in electron tubes, distributor caps, light bulb sockets, and insulators. The most common modern uses of Bakelite are industrial electrical applications and brake pad construction.


Jacques E. Brandenberger, a Swiss chemist, developed cellophane in 1908. Ever since he saw a glass of wine spill on a tablecloth, he wanted to invent a cloth to repel liquids. He worked with several types of fabric, and tried spraying waterproof coating on each. He did not get the desired results from any of these experiments, as the coated fabric was too stiff. However, the sprays left behind a clear film that separated easily from the cloth. He began working with this film and experimenting with different production processes. In 1912, he developed a machine to produce the film and filed a patent for cellophane. Demand was not high at first because it was not moisture proof. In 1927, William Hale Church made cellophane moisture proof by spraying it with a lacquer. Following this development, cellophane sales increased drastically. Now it is a common, everyday household product.


In 1933, plastic became more versatile with the invention of polyethylene. This is a flexible, durable form of plastic that is chemically resistant and inexpensive to produce. This is the type of plastic used to produce food storage containers, milk jugs, water bottles, plastic bags, soda bottles, and other similar products. It was a popular substance during World War II, as its chemical properties made it ideal for insulating defense systems. At the end of the war, manufacturers started using polyethylene for other purposes. It was the first plastic to sell more than one billion pounds per year in the United States.

The Invention of Plastic

The following resources offer more information about plastic and the inventors who contributed to the development of this versatile material.