The Age of Plastic
The Age of Plastics dawned in 1907 when Belgian-born chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland made the first plastic.
The Polymer Age is also called the Age of Plastics. “Plastic” (from the Greek “plastikos,” meaning moldable) is the popular term for a variety of synthetic, or manmade, polymers. Polymers (“poly” = many) are very large molecules – veritable giants in the molecular world – comprised of smaller molecules called monomers (“mono” = one). Most polymers – but not all – consist of monomers that are similar to each other, joined together in a straight chain, like a long string of pearls. Thousands of different polymers exist in nature.
The most plentiful natural polymer in the world is cellulose, the major natural structural material of trees and other plants. The proteins that make up our bodies are polymers, including deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the material that carries the genetic codes for all living creatures.
Around 1907, Belgian-born chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland took two ordinary chemicals, phenol and formaldehyde, mixed them in a sealed autoclave, and subjected them to heat and pressure. The sticky, amber-colored resin he produced in his Yonkers laboratory was the first plastic ever to be created entirely from chemicals, and the first material to be made entirely by man.
Dr. Baekeland’s new material – he called it Bakelite – opened the door to the Age of Plastics and seeded the growth of a worldwide industry that today employs more than 60 million people. Today, synthetic plastics are everywhere. They are just as familiar to us as wood or metal, and as easily taken for granted.
The American Chemical Society designated the development of Bakelite – an entirely new material – as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on November 9, 1993.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to read more about the age of plastics.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program