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When was plastic first invented?

Find when plastic was first invented and its first uses.

Plastics have changed the way we live our lives. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Plastics have changed the way we live our lives.

Plastic was first invented around 1850 when Alexander Parkes (1813-1890) experimented with nitrocellulose (or guncotton). Mixed with camphor, it gave a hard but flexible transparent material that he called Parkesine.

He teamed up with a manufacturer to produce it, but there was no call 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 to make a few household articles under the name celluloid. Celluloid became the medium for cinematography as celluloid strips coated with a light-sensitive film were ideal for shooting and showing movie pictures.

Celluloid was the only plastic material until 1904 when a 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.

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