Who invented plastic?

Plastic means “capable of being molded or modeled’’. When heated, plastics are like modeling clay. They can be molded into shapes which last when the material is cooled. In making plastics, chemists start with the molecule.

The chemist causes molecules from a certain material to form a long chain, the links being the molecules. The new “long-chain” molecule acts differently from the single molecule. The molecules are said to “polymerize” when they link into chains. By polymerization, new materials are made.
The hard pieces of the polymer are ground into fine powder or made into pellets. Colors are added, and chemicals are worked in to make it flexible.
Chemists knew and had worked with plastics about 125 years ago. Vinyl chloride was polymerized in 1843, and polyester in 1847. But at that time there was no great need for these synthetic materials. Natural products such as wood, metals, rubber, hide, and ivory was plentiful.
The supply of ivory was first to be used up. So a prize was offered to anyone who developed a substitute for ivory. While working on this project. John Hyatt and his brother Isaiah Hyatt discovered celluloid, which they patented in 1870. Celluloid had made defects, but their discovery led other chemists to think about developing synthetic materials.

The Phenolic Plastic discovered by Leo Baekeland in 1907, was the first completely synthetic substance to be produced in huge quantities. Since that time many new plastics have been discovered.


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