Minerals, Metals, and Other Materials

Man-Made Products

When was plastic invented?

In the mid–1850s, Alexander Parkes (1813–1890) experimented with nitrocellulose (or guncotton). Mixed with camphor, it made a hard but flexible transparent material, which he called “Parkesine.” He teamed up with a manufacturer to produce it, but there was no demand for it, and the firm went bankrupt. An American, John Wesley Hyatt (1837–1920), acquired the patent in 1868 with the idea of producing artificial ivory for billiard balls. Improving the formula and with an efficient manufacturing process, he marketed the material, intended for use in making a few household articles, under the name “celluloid.” It soon found use in the manufacture of novelty and fancy goods—buttons, letter openers, boxes, hatpins, combs, and the like were products often made of celluloid. The material also became the medium for cinematography: celluloid strips coated with a light-sensitive “film” were ideal for shooting and showing moving pictures.

Celluloid was the only plastic material until 1904, when Belgian scientist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863–1944) succeeded in producing a synthetic shellac from formaldehyde and phenol. Called “bakelite,” it was the first of the thermosetting plastics (i.e., synthetic materials that, having once been subjected to heat and pressure, became extremely hard and resistant to high temperatures). Bakelite and other, more versatile plastics, eventually eclipsed celluloid, and by the 1940s, celluloid’s markets had shrunk so that it was no longer of commercial importance. Today, ping pong balls are almost the only product still made with celluloid.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Science Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App