It was in 1862 that Alexander Parkes introduced the world’s first-ever man-made plastic, at the London International Exhibition. “Parkesine,” as it was called, was marketed as an alternative to ivory and horn that Parks discovered while trying to develop a synthetic substitute for shellac for waterproofing.

Though the product was not a commercial success, Parkesine represented an important first step in the development of man-made plastic. The material didn’t start to truly show its potential value and diversity of applications until John Wesley Hyatt in Albany, New York discovered a way to manufacture an improved version of Parkesine, most commonly known as celluloid.

Read on to see more important dates in plastics’ rich history:

  • 1907 – Bakelite

    While Parkesine was created from organic compounds, specifically cellulose, Dr. Leo Bakeland created the world’s first entirely synthetic plastic called Bakelite. This marks the start of the modern plastics industry.

  • 1920 – Polymers discovered

    Hermann Staudinger proved the existence of what we know today as polymers in 1920. Plastics are just one subset of polymers, a broad term that can be used to describe any plastic as well as several other naturally-occurring organic compounds. Even our own DNA are polymers.

  • 1933 – 1945 – Innovation and War

    A staggering number of plastic and chemical innovations emerged in the period surrounding World War II.

    • Polyethylene (PE) was created in England in 1933 and was a closely held state secret, as the lightweight plastic was used to insulate radar cabling, sufficiently lightening them to be placed on airplanes and giving Britain’s planes a significant advantage against the Germans’.
    • Polystyrene (PS) was created first as an alternative to die-cast zinc, but quickly became a replacement for rubber in the copolymer of polystyrene and butadiene: styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR).
    • Nylon, which DuPont released for sale as synthetic silk hosiery in 1939 to much fanfare, was quickly rationed by the U.S. military for use in parachutes and ropes.
    • A Dow chemist created expanded polystyrene (EPS) by accident in 1941 and the sturdy lightweight plastic became a useful thermal insulator and shock-absorber.
  • The 1950s – A growing market
    • Plastics manufacturers turned to making consumer products as an outlet for the materials they developed in the war. Polyester was introduced in the 1950s, and polypropylene, today one of the most used polymers in the world, got its start as a commodity in 1954, becoming a very useful polymer due to its adaptability.
    • High-density PE (HDPE), today most commonly used to make plastic milk jugs, was developed during this period as well. Its origins demonstrated the creativity of some of this era’s great plastics innovators.
      • While initially showing great promise in creating sturdy chemical resistant plastic products like bottles, tubing and pipes, HDPE’s future was precarious right out of the gate as initial production lots were not as consistent as the samples made in the lab. Warehouses filled with unsold, off-specification HDPE until the hula-hoop craze of the late 1950s required such huge amounts of plastic that demand for the toys consumed six months of the early HDPE production. This kept the manufacturers in business until they had time to resolve their issues with the material and make it more reliable in applications other than hula hoops.
  • The 1960s
    • The polysulfone family of thermoplastics, introduced in 1965, were most visibly used on the gold-film visors of Apollo-era space suits.
    • Para-aramid synthetic fiber, more commonly known as Kevlar, was also introduced in 1965 and was first used in the racing industry to replace steel in racing tires, although it has since found many other modern uses as well, most notably in bulletproof vests.
  • The 1970s and Beyond
    • Oil embargoes drove consumers and companies to refocus on biobased and biodegradable plastics in the 1970s, in the interest of both environmental conservation and economic necessity.
    • The bioplastics of the late 1980s and early 1990s were a direct response to these concerns, but, much like the rubber fad of the 1830s, the excitement surrounding them was dampened when the products failed to meet consumer expectations.
    • Research and development continued and bioplastics as a class have resurged in production and availability to meet consumers and brand owners’ renewed interest in sustainable polymer options.
  • Today – The Material of Choice for Innovative Applications

    Today plastics are renowned for their sustainability, strength and design flexibility, finding unique and innovative applications in sectors ranging from healthcare and medicine, consumer technology, automotive, packaging, aerospace, building and construction and everything in between.

    Check out PLASTICS’ Plastics Market Watch report series for the major developments in these sectors as well as what’s in store for them in the future.