Year of Invention: 1909
What Is It? A man-made substance of polymer chain molecules that changes
shape when heated and then retains the new shape once cooled.
Who Invented It? Leo Hendrik Baekeland (in New York City)
No material has changed our lives in the past 100 years as much as plastic and its many derivative forms—Formica, PVC, Plexiglas, nylon, etc. We live in a plastic world: plastic credit cards; plastic computers; plastic phones; plastic car parts; plastic radios and televisions; plastic cameras and clocks; plastic pipe, furniture, and clothes; plastic bins, jars, tableware, plates, and cases. Plastic seems to be everywhere. Plastic has invaded every facet of our lives.
Plastic is a new kind of material. Nothing like it existed before. People used ceramics, glass, stone, wood, and metal. Windows were made of glass. Cabinets, furniture, and counters were made of metal or wood.
Plastic was invented in 1909. But 40 years earlier, John Hyatt came close. In 1869, Hyatt invented celluloid, a plastic-like substance made from paper (or wood) fiber that was the forerunner of plastic. The New York firm Phelan and Collender offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could invent a satisfactory replacement for the ivory they used to make billiard balls. Hyatt decided to win that prize.
Hyatt conducted a long series of experiments in his New York City apartment, mixing whatever chemicals he could afford with anything that offered him carbon chain molecules to work with. One of the substances he often started with was paper. Paper was cheap. Paper came from wood. And wood was built from carbon chain molecules.
One afternoon in late 1869, Hyatt tried dunking paper in a bath of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. The dark liquid bubbled. Fumes rose to sting his eyes. The rank smell made him