What Early Plastic Was Created as an Alternative to Secreted Beetle Resin?
Although people had been using organic plastics in some form or another for hundreds of years, completely synthetic plastics are a relatively new invention. In Medieval Europe, for example, animal horns that had been scraped thin and flattened were used to make translucent windows. Natural gum rubbers, later vulcanized and popularized by Charles Goodyear, are another common plastic derived from natural sources. As time and technology progressed, natural plastics found their way into more and more products.
In the early 20th century, the budding electronics industries in America and Europe were importing shellac by the shipload to help insulate early electronic devices. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, which is then collected off the trees in countries like India and Thailand. As you can imagine, importing the distilled secretions of a distant bug in order to coat your electronic devices was quite costly and many companies were looking for alternatives that didn’t involve such a large amount of labor, travel, and expense.
To that end, Dr. Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist working in New York, discovered polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycolanhydride, or as it was more commonly known, Bakelite. In 1907, Baekeland, after extensive studying of natural polymers such as the shellac he was attempting to replace, found that he could create a completely synthetic polymer by combining phenol and formaldehyde. The result was a synthetic polymer that, when formed under pressure in molds to force the air bubbles out, created a smooth and hard plastic—the ubiquitous early 20th-century plastic Bakelite.
Bakelite is resistant to electricity, heat, and chemicals, and thus it quickly found its way into a myriad of applications. Bakelite has been used to form the bodies of consumer electronics (such as the iconic black Bakelite phones, seen here), firearm parts, wire insulation, brake pads, camera bodies, and more. At one point during metal shortages created by World War II, the U.S. government even considered making coins out of it.
Once Dr. Baekeland showcased his completely synthetic plastic, the cat was out of the bag and now unique plastics are made for every conceivable need from plumbing to space exploration.
Image by William Warby/Wikimedia.