The first truly synthetic plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland – a Belgium chemist living in New York. Baekeland was already very rich as he had invented the first commercially successful photographic paper and sold it to George Eastman in 1898 for $1 million. With such money, Baekeland could engage himself in whatever research he decided to do.
In 1905, he found that when he combined formaldehyde and phenol, he produced a material that bound all types of powders together. He called this material Bakelite – after himself – and it was the first thermosetting plastic in the world. This was a material that once it set hard would not soften under heat. It had so many uses and so many potential uses, that it was called “the material of a thousand uses”.
Bakelite was water and solvent resistant; could be used as an electrical insulator; was rock hard but could be cut by a knife and was used in 78 rpm records and telephones.
New plastics were invented such as neoprene in 1932, polythene in 1933 and Perspex in 1934. One of the most famous wholly synthetic fibres was invented in 1938 at the cost of $10 million – nylon. In the first year of its creation, nylon went into toothbrush bristles and nylon stockings. 64 million pairs of stockings were made in 1938 alone. Nylon was also used by the military in World War Two for gearing wheels in vehicles and parachute cords.
More modern plastics include Teflon (used in non-stick pans), lycra (used initially in sports wear), Dacron (crease and rot-resistant material used in sailing and tents). All these have a background in the work done by Baekeland and his Bakelite.