The History and Future of Plastics (3)-The Development of New Plastics

In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Baekeland had been searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac, a natural electrical insulator, to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States. Bakelite was not only a good insulator; it was also durable, heat resistant, and, unlike celluloid, ideally suited for mechanical mass production. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite could be shaped or molded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities.

Hyatt’s and Baekeland’s successes led major chemical companies to invest in the research and development of new polymers, and new plastics soon joined celluloid and Bakelite. While Hyatt and Baekeland had been searching for materials with specific properties, the new research programs sought new plastics for their own sake and worried about finding uses for them later.

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