While most of us think of plastic as a relatively new invention, plastic has been around since the mid 1800’s. The invention of plastics came from the need to develop large scale methods of manufacturing materials.
The first plastic was observed in the 1850’s by Alexander Parkes. He found that a residue left after evaporation of photo-development materials was “a hard, horny, elastic and waterproof substance”. Although this substance was not a successful commercial or industrial product, it was considered the first true plastic.
In 1869 an inventor named John Hyatt invented type of plastic which could be used as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. This was the first commercially viable way of producing a solid stable plastic. The plastic was used to make billiard balls, false teeth and piano keys. This is the first time that humanity could generate such materials that didn’t come from animals or plants. This first use of plastic actually had a positive impact on the environment by eliminating the need to kill elephants and tortoises to make hard sturdy objects. It also allowed more people who had limited access to natural resources to obtain these products because of the increased availability.
Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907. It contained no molecules found in nature. This plastic was invented as a mechanically synthesizable synthetic electrical insulator. Prior to this, the insulator of choice was shellac - a substance produced by a female lac bug. This new plastic electrical insulator helped expand the U.S. electric grid when it was first being implemented.
From 1939 to 1945, the need for plastic exploded because of World War II. The war effort required a lot of plastic to be used in place of harder to come by materials like rubber. Plastic was used for parachutes, military vehicles, radar insulation, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, airplane windows and many more.
After World War II, the use of plastic continued to rise. Tupperware, plastic bags, packaging, automobiles, and seemingly limitless other products require the use of plastic. The need for easily manufactured, hard, flexible, light materials will always exist. History shows that plastic is hugely beneficial and can even help the environment, however because of the explosion in plastic use, it’s important to limit use when possible and always properly dispose of plastic products.
Everton, Clive (1986). The History of Billiards and Snooker (rev. ver. of The Story of Billiards and Snooker, 1979 ed.). Haywards Heath, UK: Partridge Pr. p. 11.