Insights from BCC Research

The History of Plastics and Plastics Additives

Posted by Srinivasa Rajaram on May 7, 2018 11:00:00 AM

Plastic Bottle

The following is an excerpt from the recently published BCC Research report “Global Markets for Plastics Additives.”

The histories of plastics and plastics additives must be considered together as each of them is dependent on the other in the development of various types of plastics.

Alexander Parkes, of Birmingham, England, developed the first man-made plastics in 1855 by dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol camphor containing ether. He called the substance “synthetic ivory” and started marketing it under the trade name “Parkesine.” When dissolved in alcohol, cellulose nitrate hardened into a transparent and elastic material that could be molded when heated, and when treated with pigments, it resembled ivory. The introduction of Parkesine is generally regarded as the birth of plastics.


Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in the state of New York, invented the first synthesis method for making plastics by making synthetic polymer from phenol and formaldehyde in 1909. He called it Bakelite and announced his discovery in 1912. This material came into widespread use in 1920 and was used for electrical, mechanical parts and finally in consumer goods. Bakelite is regarded as the first true plastics material, as it was purely synthetic.

Polystyrene and PVC

New forms of plastics developed after World War I included polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride, which were developed by IG Farben of Germany. Plastics model kits and similar products were made of polystyrene and formed the basis for “foamed” plastics. Polystyrene was marketed under the trade name Styrofoam. High-impact styrene was developed in the 1950s and is still used for novelty items and toy figurines. PVC was found to be stiff, heat- and weather-resistant, and quite strong. It found use in plumbing, gutters, house siding, enclosures for computers and other electronics gear. When softened by chemical processing, PVC could be used for shrink-wrap, food packaging and raingear.


Polyamide is an important plastic that was developed in the 1930s. Its trade name is Nylon, and it was introduced by DuPont Corp. in 1939. Wallace Carothers, a chemist from Harvard, helped DuPont develop nylon, which was very strong as well as flexible, and was first used for making bristles for toothbrushes. Today, nylon is used in textiles and other fabrics. Nylon is wear-resistant in oil-impregnated bulk form and is now used for gears, bearings and bushings. Nylon’s heat-resistant qualities make it ideal for under-the-hood applications in cars and other mechanical parts.

Acrylic, Polyethylene, etc.

Other types of plastics were developed around the world during and after World War I. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) was developed in 1936 and was found useful in building aircraft canopies during the war. Today, it is mostly used in large illuminated signs such as those used on storefronts or inside large stores, and for the manufacture of vacuum-formed bathtubs.

While working for Imperial Chemical Industries, U.K., Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett discovered polyethylene (PE) in 1933, which is also known as polythene. Giulio Natta developed polypropylene from polyethylene in the 1950s. Polypropylene is similar to PE but more robust at the same cost and is used for the manufacture of plastics bottles, carpets and plastics furniture. It is also widely used in automobiles.

Friedrich Bayer & Co. invented polyurethane (PU) in 1937, and it was used in blown form for mattresses, furniture padding and thermal padding.

IG Farben patented polyepoxide or epoxy, which is a class of thermoset plastics, in 1939. It was widely used for coatings, adhesives and for composite materials after the war. Glass-reinforced and carbon-epoxy composites were developed using epoxy as a matrix and glass fiber or carbon fiber as the structural element. Because of their light weight, strength and resistance to heat, these composite materials (e.g., fiber glass) are widely used as structural elements in aircraft.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which was used as synthetic fibers in the post-war years, was developed by Rex Whinfield and James Dickson, who worked the Calico Printers’ Association, Manchester, England, in 1941. Other names for PET are polyester, Dacron and Terylene, depending on the manufacturer.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known as Teflon, was developed by Roy Plunkett at DuPont in 1938 and was extensively used during World War II. Teflon could be deposited over metal surfaces, creating a scratchproof, corrosion-resistant and low-friction protective coating. Teflon became very popular for use in adhesion-resistant frying pans in the 1960s.

Formica, a plastics laminate mostly used for furniture, kitchen cabinets, etc., was developed in 1950. The material became very popular because it could be cleaned easily of stains from food preparation, blood or grease stains. In addition, the material was lightweight, and furniture built with a Formica covering was lower in cost than other wood furniture.

General Electric developed Lexan, a high impact polycarbonate, in the 1970s. Kevlar, a synthetic fiber, was developed by DuPont in 1965 and is used for combat helmets.

For more information on the global market additives and recent developments within this industry, download a free report overview.


Topics: Plastics