Although humans have been using organic plastics for centuries in some form, synthetic plastics are a relatively new invention. In medieval Europe, for example, translucent and flattened animal horns were used to make translucent windows. Natural rubber, later vulcanized and popularized by Charles Goodyear, is another common plastic from natural sources. With the advancement of time and technology, natural plastics have come in more and more products.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the emerging electronics industries in America and Europe imported shellac over the ship's cargo to isolate the early electronic devices. Shellac is a resin that is secreted by the female bug bug, which is then collected from trees in countries such as India and Thailand. As you can imagine, importing the distilled secretions of a remote bug to coat your electronic devices was quite costly, and many companies were looking for alternatives that did not involve so much work, travel and expense.
To this end, Dr. Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist working in New York, polyoxybenzylmethylene glycol anhydride or, more commonly, bakelite. After extensive research into natural polymers such as shellac, which he tried to replace, Baekeland discovered in 1
Bakelite is resistant to electricity, heat and chemicals and quickly found its way into a variety of applications. Bakelite has been used to shape consumer electronics (such as the iconic black Bakelite phones shown here), firearms parts, wire insulation, brake pads, camera housings, and more. During the shortage of metal caused by the Second World War, the US government even thought of making coins out of it.
After Dr. Baekeland had shown his fully synthetic plastic, the cat was out of the bag and now unique plastics are made every conceivable need from plumbing to space exploration.
Picture by William Warby / Wikimedia.