A Short History Of Synthetics
From the earliest impulses of western science to create something from something else, the malleability of hydrocarbon raw materials such as petroleum, natural gas and coal has been the focus of experiment. The process has been one of accidental discovery. Early efforts to develop synthetic pharmaceuticals inadvertently led to the artificial dye industry. The pursuit of the ideal artificial billiard ball led to a greater understanding of petrochemicals and thereby to celluloid for the emerging photographic industry. Moldable manufactured goods of all kinds found markets and motivated chemists to improve their methods.
The marketplace often drove the process: As electricity lit up civilization, its wiring needed affordable insulation. In peacetime expansions, and even during the Great Depression, the marketplace was the showcase of the new and remarkable, from consumer goods to industrial components. The world wars heightened demand for military products and shortages of natural commodities, especially in World War II, also drove industry.
After the extraordinary expansion following World War II, a backlash developed. Begun by concerns over human ability to cohabit healthfully and safely with the synthetic, eventually questions arose about the natural environment’s ability to tolerate the synthetic. In the last two decades, industry has begun to develop materials people can live with and methods to help the environment digest them.
Seeking to derive a synthetic quinine from what was called “coal tar” in the late 1840s, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, Director of London’s Royal College of Chemistry, set his eighteen-year-old assistant, William Henry Perkin, to work on the project. Oxidizing coal tar-derived aniline with potassium dichromate and then dissolving it in alcohol, Perkin got nothing. But when he spilled it and went to wipe it up, the rag turned a lovely lavender. Experimenting further, Perkin found he had an artificial purple dye superior to the only contemporary natural dye, an extract of mallow blossom. Perkin began a successful career in the dye business and, in England, the 1850s became known as “the Mauve Decade.”
In the same era, French and German organic chemists were experimenting with nitrocellulose, a substance produced by oxidizing cotton with nitric and sulphuric acids. The French poet, painter, revolutionary and chemist Louis Menard experimented with nitrocellulose and produced something he called collodion, cellulose in an alcohol-ether mix. Then came Parkesine, a cellulose nitrate in a minimum of solvent, which was first displayed by its British inventor, Alexander Parkes, at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London.
“…It can be made HARD AS IVORY, TRANSPARENT or OPAQUE, of any degree of FLEXIBILITY,” Parkes advertised, “…and is also WATERPROOF; it may be made of the most BRILLIANT COLORS, can be used in the SOLID, PLASTIC or FLUID STATE, may be worked in DIES and PRESSURE, as METALS, it may be CAST or used as a COATING…the most perfect imitation of TORTOISE SHELL, WOODS, and an endless variety of effects can be produced…” (a)
Parkes produced combs, chessmen, umbrella handles, and jewelry resembling ivory, coral and amber. His substance failed to catch on, however, because it was expensive and unreliable in mass production.
Following the American Civil War, billiards became very popular. The firm of Phelan & Collender, the most successful supplier of billiards equipment, offered a $10,000 reward to the inventor of an artificial replacement for the expensive and difficult-to-manufacture elephant ivory billiard ball. In pursuit of the reward, brothers John Wesley and Isaiah Smith Hyatt, upstate New York printers, sons of a blacksmith and home inventors, began molding pulps, binders, fillers and glues. But it wasn’t until John noticed that an accidentally spilled bottle of a mixture he called “collodion” congealed in a hard, transparent slab that the billiard balls began to take shape. Still, the artificial substance did not satisfactorily replace ivory. For one thing, the collodion, derived from nitrate and chemically related to TNT, retained a volatile quality and tended to ignite or explode when the balls collided, spoiling the billiard game. Then Isaiah mentioned to John that Parkes had used camphor as a solvent. However, Parkes had used liquid camphor diluted with alcohol. John used a more concentrated version to turn hot, pressurized nitrocellulose into a malleable mass. By titrating the camphor, it could be as hard as bone or as soft as rubber.
The new substance was halfway between cellulose and collodion. In 1872, Isaiah named it celluloid. It was the realization of Alexander Parkes’ dream, a thermoplastic economically conformable to molds for mass production. Eagerly, Isaiah rushed with celluloid to the American Hard Rubber Company, thinking he had the perfect synthetic answer to the difficulties of importing raw rubber. Fearful of the new and artificial, they rejected him. In fact, the rubber industry collectively conspired to have celluloid portrayed as unhealthful, potentially volatile and a tacky imitation.
Only financing by General Marshall Lefferts, the investor who had sponsored Thomas Edison, saved the Hyatt brothers from ruin. After struggling with a variety of products, they finally achieved financial success with artificial “gentleman’s linen”—reusable collars and cuffs which working-class clerks could wear without heavy duty laundering and ironing. More successes in ladies’ fashions and accessories, and financial triumph, followed.
Then, in 1877, an Englishman named Daniel Spill, who had begun in rubber and eventually worked with Alexander Parkes, brought suit against the Hyatts, claiming he, not they, had perfected the camphor treatment of nitrocellulose in his product, Xylonite. The suit turned into a complicated, redundant, three-way struggle involving Parkes, Spill and the Hyatts. In the end, the patent was invalidated and the market was left wide open.
THE FIRST PLASTICS
In an early 1870s experiment he considered a failure, German chemist Adolf von Bayaer made a tar-like solid from a coal tar distillate turpentine-substitute called phenol and a wood-alcohol distillate embalming-fluid called formaldehyde. He called it a mere “schmiere” (German for goo or mess). Later, German manufacturer Ernst Krische marketed to schools a hardened white “Galalith” chalkboard-like writing board, made from Bavarian chemist Adolf Spitteler’s concoction of the milk protein casein stabilized by formaldehyde.
The small success of Galalith inspired German chemist Werner Kleeberg to return to von Bayaer’s schmiere. Kleeberg catalyzed the phenol-formaldehyde mixture with hydrochloric acid and got a black, sticky amorphous substance that would not dissolve or melt. At the time, around 1890, Kleeberg did not see any value in it. By then, however, celluloid had found a groundbreaking place in photography. It was the first major and intractable place plastic found in modern life.
Austrian chemist Adolf Luft was intrigued by Kleeberg’s black, amorphous, sticky stuff. Experimenting further with phenol and formaldehyde, he produced a brittle, amber-colored, heat-resistant solid similar but inferior to celluloid. His work was taken up in 1904 by English electrical engineer James Swinburne in his pursuit of a synthetic wiring insulation. In 1907, Swinburne finally found the solvent and the process by which Luft’s substance could be transformed into the perfect electrical insulator, but he got to the patent office one day late.
Leo Baekland, a Belgian immigrant, lived in comfort in the New York City suburb of Yonkers as the result of having sold a formula for photographic paper to George Eastman for $750,000 (approximately $25 million today). Since 1902, he had sought a way to perfect the phenol-formaldehyde work of von Bayaer and Kleeberg. In his “bakelizer,” a device developed to precisely control the pressure and temperature of the reaction, Baekland created the first completely synthetic “thermoset” plastic, a substance that once molded stayed molded. It would neither dissolve nor melt. This meant, as the “day-late” James Swinburne knew only too well, that Bakelite was an excellent substance to insulate the endless miles of electrical wiring just beginning to encircle the world, as the 19th century became the 20th.
Up to this time, insulation was made primarily from shellac, an organic substance derived from the amber-colored, shell-like excretions of the female lac beetle (Laccifer lacca), in which she is smothered after extracting the tree sap which sustains her while she reproduces. Indigenous Southeast Asian peoples derived shellac in a labor- and beetle-intensive process (fifteen thousand lac beetles and six months produced a pound of shellac) that was adequate as long as it was a little-used insulator or wood lacquer. In the age of electricity, its cost was prohibitive. But Bakelite, a true phenol-formaldehyde synthetic, turned soft, porous wood hard. Also, it was electrically neutral, did not shatter, crack, fade, crease, discolor in sunlight, damp or salt air, nor did it weaken from acidity, blemish, warp, mar or disfigure. And it made an excellent billiard ball.
Bakelite, an almost instant success, was used in the burgeoning molding industry in a myriad of applications. An example of how it took over the marketplace is provided by the Boonton Rubber Company, which built a new plant exclusively to work with Bakelite in 1908: By 1909 only twenty percent of its business remained in rubber. Most any conceivable kind of knob, handle or frame could be synthesized. Demand for insulating material from burgeoning electrics companies, e.g., Westinghouse and General Electric, was enormous. By 1911, variations and pirated psuedo-variations were a problem.
During World War I, Bakelite served innumerable purposes, from uniform buttons to airplane distributor insulation to airplane propeller laminate, and by the time the war was over, it was virtually a manufacturing staple. The laminated airplane propellers were turned to peaceful purposes inside domestic washing machines suitable for “…the filmiest and flimsiest.”(b) In the post-war auto boom, Bakelite was inside the passenger compartment and under the hood. It also became the chassis, panels, knobs and insulation in the radio boom.
Leo Baekeland was on the cover of Time magazine in September, 1924, and the magazine predicted:
“From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush,” Time extolled, “until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray, and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes.” (c)
As the original patent ran out, in 1927, Baekeland and the Bakelite industry put on a huge campaign to spread its impact. Within the next few years, the media-crowned King of Plastics had found its way into a myriad of popular, everyday and groundbreaking products, including the barrel of the Parker Pen, the handle and cradle of the modern telephone and the Kodak “Brownie” camera.
REACTION TO THE NEW MATERIAL
Perhaps the most enduring reaction by the world of design to the new materials is Art Deco, but the 1920s architectural theories of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus also owed much to the increasing availability of synthetic materials. New plastics (from “plassein,” Greek, “to mold”) led to molded furniture, designed by the likes of Paul T. Frankl and Donald Deskey. In fact, designers, inventors and entrepreneurs molded synthetics into new niches throughout the marketplace, from the auto industry to medicine to building materials. In 1921, coal-tar resin production was 1.5 million pounds; in 1939, it was 141 million pounds. That year, Bakelite Corporation merged with Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, a pioneer in extending the uses of petrochemical-derived synthetics. At the same time, synthetics were being aggressively developed by IG Farben (InteressenGemeinschaft Farbenwerke) in Germany and I.C.I. (Imperial Chemical Industries) in Britain.
Until the early 1920s, plastics could be cast, but not molded, with bright colors. An Austrian chemist, Fritz Pollak, solved the problem by making a plastic using Baekland’s techniques but substituting urea for phenol. This led to the first Beatl invasion: Better known now as Beetleware (for the emblem of the British Cyanides Company which invented it), it was a sensation at Harrod’s in 1926 and by the end of the decade tables in Europe and America were set with an alluring variety of “unbreakable” dishes and glasses in an array of colors and styles. Meanwhile, Germans improved the injection molding process, making artificial products ever sleeker, smaller and more precise.
Derivation of the fundamental materials became less and less important. Coal tar, petroleum, cellulose and liquefied natural gas were manipulated chemically to achieve the purposes sought. Today, surprisingly, the main feedstock in the United States is natural gas, though in most of the rest of the world it continues to be petroleum. (d)
In the 1890s and early 1900s, as sources of petroleum and natural gas were discovered and developed all over the world, experimenters rushed to derive new uses for them, from petroleum-based printer’s ink to petroleum asphalt.In 1903, Shell Oil founder Marcus Samuel brought an experimental process to the British Admiralty. It recalled the work of the Hyatt brothers. One of the ingredients for TNT, toluol, was an extract of coal. Hoping to expand the market for his newly discovered supplies of Borneo crude, Samuel was pushing a process developed by a Cambridge University chemist to derive toluol from oil. With an abundance of coal in Wales, and sources of oil either distant or unknown, the British government spurned Samuel’s proposal. In 1914, vital World War I supplies of coal-derived toluol ran short. The Admiralty sent Samuel and British commandos on a mission to steal a Rotterdam toluol-extracting oil refinery. They actually took the entire facility apart, piece by piece, and reassembled it in Somerset. The refinery provided much of Britain’s TNT in the war. Samuel won a peerage.
Chemist William Burton began with Standard Oil in 1889, doing work with oil sulfurs to neutralize the repulsive smell of Indiana crude. In 1909, Burton and his research team developed the first “synthetic gasoline.” They invented the “cracking” process of oil refining, using extreme pressures and temperatures to break the organic molecules into components. This process doubled the amount of useful gasoline in a barrel of oil, fueling the boom of the automobile and the internal combustion engine. In the 1930s, both Japanese and German chemists developed processes for making synthetic fuel from coal. During World War II such fuel proved satisfactory when derived using slave labor. But hydrogenated coal has subsequently, even with improved modern scientific methods, proved too labor-costly to be an economically viable fuel. Further developments in both explosives and fuels subsequently followed industrial advances in the chemistry of synthetics.
In the U.S., E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company (popularly known as DuPont) led the way in the 1920s and 30s, shifting emphasis from the chemistry of explosives to chemistry that exploded the way industry did things. DuPont took up pre-existing science and brought cellulose-based “cellophane” to market, which revolutionized packaging so completely it was recognized in Cole Porter’s 1934 lyric “You’re the Top”:
“You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain,
You’re the National Gallery, you’re Garbo’s salary, you’re cellophane…” (e)
DuPont again took up pre-existing science, this time developing cellulose-based rayon, which revolutionized the fashion industry. Building on the rayon chemistry and doing groundbreaking work in polymer structure at DuPont’s research facility, Purity Hall, lead chemist Wallace Carothers’ unique team created in 1931 the first rubber-substitute from a petroleum derivative rather than coal tar. It was called neoprene. This led to a deeper understanding of how to make a polymer and to many more petroleum-derived polymer synthetics.
At the same time, Carothers, in pursuit of a “superpolymer” thread, began work which culminated in DuPont’s 1938 release, after a twelve-year, 27 million dollar search, of a synthetic silk. Carothers’ great achievements were first to make the first intentionally structured polymer, polyester, and then to devise a variation on polyester called polyamide, which went by the nickname Fiber 66 (from its chemical structure).
Giving Fiber 66 a real name took DuPont over two years. Rejecting candidates like artex, dextra and nepon, norun became nuron but seemed too close to neuron and moron; nulon became nilon, but fearing mispronounciations like nee-lon and nill-on, they finally settled on nylon. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, DuPont presented its Wonder World of Chemistry. There was a sixty foot illuminated Lucite mural illustrating their slogan, “Better Things for Better Living,”(f) a circular stage separated into five rooms in which puppets acted out the better living with puppet versions of the better things, and a see-through chamber in which swarms of flies were killed by the miracle of insecticide. But DuPont’s display of nylon hosiery, far sexier than most corporate presentations, showed what better living was really about. Women’s legs were never the same again.
Carrothers’ development of the superpolymer, a long chain molecule with a very large molecular weight, led to the chemistry of synthetics as we know it today. It produced an abundance of vital new knowledge and a multitude of materials, but the commercial pressure on Carothers at DuPont drove him to suicide in 1937 at the age of 41.
World War II military uses for rubber and nylon turned these now largely petroleum-derived products, as well as many more synthetics developed in the 1920s and 1930s, into rationed commodities. Scientists at Germany’s IG Farben conspired for a while, in response to Hitler’s grotesque anti-Semitism, to prevent the development of their extraordinary synthetic, Buna rubber. Eventually, though, the company was thoroughly Nazified and Germany’s September, 1939, blitzkrieg of Poland rolled on Buna tires. Meanwhile, Buna’s developer, Jewish chemist Herman F. Mark, fled the murderous intolerance of Germany for the U.S., where he eventually became a leading polymer chemist.
Following the U.S. entry into the war, Standard Oil used its petroleum-based synthetic, butyl rubber, to leverage itself out of scandal and disgrace. A pre-war conspiracy between Standard and Farben to market Buna and suppress butyl, in exchange for marketing opportunities in Europe, had been revealed. A little-known Missouri senator named Harry Truman was using his senate committee to rake Standard over the coals of public opinion and threaten them with punitive action. Standard’s subsequent guilt- and fine-induced manufacturing frenzy raised 1944 U.S. production of synthetic rubber to levels above prewar crude rubber processing.
IG Farben responded, at Hitler’s urging, with a new division. At a new plant located where it could take advantage of a unique supply of very cheap labor, Farben’s board of directors was extremely optimistic about the profit potential of the new division, IG Auschwitz. With brutal irony, the new plant failed. Its cheap labor force was demoralized, inefficient and, eventually, mostly exterminated.
A hydrocarbon-derived polymer was accidentally developed by I.C.I. scientists in Britain in the mid-1930s as the result of an explosive pressurization of ethylene. They found little need for it until 1940, when polyethylene turned out to be the miraculously lightweight insulator necessary to make radar portable. Thus, British aircraft were able to take radar airborne, where the outnumbered Royal Air Force defeated the German onslaught. And the Royal Navy took radar to sea, where it defeated German sea-going technology. Germany had radar, but it did not have the miracle insulator, polyethylene, that made radar compact and mobile.
Plastics replaced vitally needed metals and other natural materials in so many military uses that a plastics sub-unit of the Quartermaster Corps was created in the U.S. defense establishment. B.F. Goodrich’s PolyVinylChloride (waterproofings), Dow’s Saran (protective coverings), Rohm and Haas Company’s methyl methacrylate (plexiglas windows and ball turrets) and DuPont’s Teflon (valve coverings for uranium-separation equipment in the Manhattan Project) found invaluable new applications and became war-winning miracles which people learned to believe in. By 1945, the U.S. produced 818 million pounds of synthetic resins. In 1951, production reached 2.4 BILLION pounds. (2002 production was nearly 107.5 billion pounds.) (g)
The postwar rush on nylon hosiery from August, 1945, through Valentine’s Day, 1946, was like a mass hysteria. There were nylon riots at major department stores. It was war on the home front. American newspapers ran headlines like “Nylon Sale and No Casualties” and “Lady Raiders Take Nylon Beachhead” and “News is All Bad on the Nylon Front.” (h) A black market developed. Chicago police judged a murder not to be motivated by robbery because several pairs of nylon hose were left behind. But the petrochemical and synthetics industries retooled to meet peacetime needs and supply usually, after the mid-forties, met the demand created by the postwar dream of better living through chemistry.
In the postwar expansion, fractional distillation of naphthas (especially through a sophisticated process called platforming) from coal tar, petroleum, natural gas, wood and other sources provided an abundant supply of the raw materials. New resins, or superpolymers, with new qualities were born. Designers and inventors, real and fictional, became postwar heroes. In 1946, Frank Capra’s George Bailey (the Jimmy Stewart character) stayed home and learned “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he was bailed out at his time of crucial need by the boyhood pal who had become a plastics tycoon. In 1946-47, Earl S. Tupper became a real tycoon when he introduced Tupperware. Originally conceived to be disposable, Tupperware was so successful with consumers they collected and reused their burp-sealed containers. In 1948, DuPont brought out Dacron and introduced wash and wear. In 1949, Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome, made with acrylics and light metals, and architecture was never the same. In 1950, we got the polyethylene squeeze bottle.
Rohm and Haas Company, faltering economically, jumped on emerging technology to color its acrylic plexiglas red and built a business making auto taillight lenses. But that was just a hint of what postwar synthetics could do for the car. In 1953, Harley Earl, the legendary Detroit auto designer, worked sporty aerodynamic concepts into a design made from a new, hard-as-steel material called glass reinforced plastic (GRP), developed by California boat builders, and made a Corvette. The Ford Thunderbird quickly followed, and automobiles were never the same again. U.S. Rubber turned the wartime phenomenon PVC into naugahyde, changing much of what we sat on.
Also in 1953, McCall’s magazine cosponsored an exhibit at the National Home Furnishings Show in New York, displaying an “all-plastic” living room and patio. In conjunction with the show, McCall’s published a pamphlet, “Plastics: Everything a Woman Could Ask For.”(i) Ease of cleaning and color/design variety were two assets extolled. In 1954, Dow gave us Saran Wrap and our leftovers were sealed as well as Air Force jets in transport. Next came the Admiral Corporation’s plastic-shelled television with an “unbreakable” plexiglas screen. Then came Carvel’s sundae dish and banana barge, and even ice cream was more portable and more fun. Improved vinyls made it possible to replace poor-fidelity prewar versions of music on discs (records) with high fidelity, long-playing records (LPs) which remained the recording industry’s favored product until magnetic tape replaced vinyl because of improved fidelity and greater play length, those considerations leading, of course, to our contemporary technology.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company mass-produced unique, heat molded plywood/resin furniture designed by Charles and Ray Eames with a modern, yet distinctly American appeal. One Eames design, dubbed “La Chaise” because it seemed to suit one of sculptor Gaston Lachaise’s huge reclining nudes, became a design icon, spun off a whole furniture ethos, and led to Eames’ collaborator Eero Saarinen’s plastic aesthetic for the era. In 1957, Georges de Maestral made another kind of design breakthrough. Fixing “velours” and “crochet” (French for velvet and hook), or Velcro, to nylon, clothing and other attachments have ever since been quicker and stronger. 1957 was also the year the world’s first all-plastic house opened – at Disneyland. It was called the Monsanto House of the Future.
Before WWII, toys were made from few materials. Expensive dolls with lifelike detailing were glass or porcelain while cheap ones were made from a paper mache-like pasteboard. Beginning in the late 1940s, the new hard plastics industry introduced a wide array of small, Ginny-type dolls that were charming, detailed and affordable. Perhaps the pinnacle of this progress was Barbie, introduced in 1959 and still with us today. The whiffle ball was invented in 1953 by a suburban Connecticut man so his sons could throw curveballs. A bright, white, hard plastic ball with holes in it to allow air currents to affect it, boys are still throwing curves past the hard plastic whiffle bat today. In the same time period, Silly Putty became a toy craze and Fred MacMurray’s “The Absent-Minded Professor” made flubber a movie craze a few years later. Wham-O set the world spinning with the Hula-Hoop and bought an invention it later renamed and marketed as the Frisbee.
Eventually, the innovations began to seem repetitive and synthetic products seemed more redundant than futuristic. In the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller’s domes got bigger and lighter but they were not leading to a better life. They morphed into Thomas Herzog’s giant inflated sculptures of breasts and condom-ensheathed phalluses, as pop artists began satirizing the proliferation of artificial materials. Andy Warhol reigned at a St. Marks Place multimedia happening he named “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” where The Velvet Underground gave premature birth to the Punk movement.
Although over a third of the objects buried in the 1964 World’s Fair time capsule were plastic (including credit cards, a space capsule heat shield, birth control pills, an artificial heart valve, and a nylon bikini), the word became synonymous with the inauthentic. Once marketed as futuristic and timeless, artifacts from previous decades began to crack and fade. Les Levine, a precursor to performance artists, became known as “Plastic Man” for his derisive, pop-art collection of plastic objects. Critics began to observe that serious art in synthetic materials was little more than reworked traditional ideas. Early in the 1960s, haute couture, looking to the future, cast fashion in brightly colored plastic. By the decade’s end, though, artists and designers were turning away from synthetic materials despite their economic efficiency. With the spectacular color array of the double knit and disco styles, artificial fabrics achieved new, greater success. Yet a segment of the public turned against them for the first time since the nylon riots of 1945/6.
“Not long ago, cancer and plastic were associated with each other only in the writings of Norman Mailer…” wrote journalist Paul H. Weaver in 1974. Mailer was one of the earliest and most vigorous chroniclers of the failures and dangers of synthetic materials. (j) 1970 fires in an Ohio nursing home, a New York City high-rise, and the British Airways terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport were all started by plastic materials’ extreme ignitability and were made disastrous by burning plastic’s intense heat, smoke and toxic fumes. This fanned the flames of Mailer’s criticism and spurred attacks on the industry. In 1973, B.F. Goodrich’s PVC was shown to cause cancer and other serious health problems in its factories’ workers. In 1977, a Monsanto-developed plastic Coke bottle was revealed to release carcinogens into the beverage. Then Pepsi came up with a better bottle, to the frustration of environmentalists like Barry Commoner, who also expressed outrage at the proliferation of potentially carcinogenic AND non-degrading Styrofoam products. Fears of suffocation in plastic cleaners’ bags and of Teflon’s toxicity had arisen in the 1950s and then were squelched by effective public relations campaigns by the manufacturers. Such fears resurfaced in the 1970s with a vengeance when several plane crash incidents raised questions about flammability and toxic fumes from the synthetics in passenger compartments.
However, this was also the era when plastic manufacturing reached new heights of proficiency. Manipulations like platforming produced new petrochemical resin blends from coal tars, petroleum and liquefied natural gas. Biodegradable and flame retardant variations emerged. Modern life has come to include a love-hate relationship with synthetics. Despite fear of harm to our selves and our environment, we cannot seem to do without synthetic products like artificial hearts, Polartec winter wear and Kevlar bulletproof vests. Artificial environments like Disney World/Epcot, Universal City, the Six Flags theme parks, and fast food restaurants take intellectual criticism even as they reap enormous profits. And the intellectual criticism pours forth from and in synthetic, electronic technology.
Plastics are grouped in two broad categories, thermoset and thermoplastic. Although the boundaries are vague, most contemporary plastic is from thermoplastic resins and lends itself more easily to recycling. Thermoset resin materials of previous eras still challenge twenty-first century technology to find ways to replace them or recycle them before the landfills fill up. Both economics and popular sentiment make it certain the synthetics industries will seek with all their irrepressible capacity to rise to this challenge. If petroleum-based fuels are unacceptable for political and/or ecological reasons, fuels will be derived from other sources. If petroleum-based products are unacceptable for political and/or ecological reasons, crop-based plastics with polymers derived from corn or potatoes may soon make the question “Paper or plastic?” irrelevant. If plastic bottles will not degrade, they can be reprocessed into the fibers for bike shorts. If the proliferation of paper is destroying the forests, recyclable plastic paper that feels like expensive vellum can be created. If the landfills are filling up, thermal depolymerization may soon make garbage too valuable a source of hydrocarbon raw material for fuels and petrochemical feedstocks to just throw away. And, to bring it all back to the billiard ball, if demand for ivory has decimated populations of rare species and played havoc with third world economies, ever better synthetic forms of ivory might alleviate these pressures. Like gold, a material most malleable is most valuable.
(a) From an explanatory leaflet distributed at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Quoted in Fenichell, p. 17-18.
(b) From a Meadows Company advertisement for the Bakelite washing machine impeller. Quoted in Fenichell, p. 96.
(c) Time 4, September 22, 1924. Quoted in Fenichell, p. 97-98.
(d) E-mail interview with Tommy Southall, Director, Industry Information Services, The Society of the Plastics Industry, August 1, 2003.
(e) Porter, Cole, “You’re the Top” from “Anything Goes,” copyright Warner-Chappell Music, New York.
(f) Advertising slogan originated by BBD&O Agency, popularized especially on DuPont sponsored radio show The Cavalcade of America. Quoted in Meikle, p.134.
(g) American Plastics Council website
(h) “Nylon Sale…”: Cortland (New York) Standard, September 24, 1945; “Lady Raiders…”: Los Angeles Daily News, January 19, 1946; “News Is All…”: Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American, April, 1946. As quoted in Meikle. p. 150-51.
(i) Plastics: Everything a Woman Could Ask For (New York: McCall Corp., 1953) Cited in Miekle, p. 174.
(j) Weaver, Paul H., “On the Horns of the Vinyl Chloride Dilemma,” Fortune 90 (October, 1974): 150. Quoted in Meikle, p. 244.
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Originally published in:
OIL-INDUSTRY HISTORY, Volume 5, Number 1, 2004, Petroleum History Institute, Meadville, PA