WHEN THE TITANIC plunged to the ocean floor in 1912, it became an underwater time capsule, a snapshot of life in the early 20th century. Salvagers who recovered the riches aboard the wreck 75 years later were struck by the absence of one material: plastic. That's impossible to image today. Since 1976 plastic has been the most widely used material in the United States. "In the five decades since World War II, plastic has crept unceasingly, and often invisibly, into our homes, cars, offices, even our bodies," writes Stephen Fenichell in his book "Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century."

The earliest plastics were invented with far more modest goals. Created from the plant-based material cellulose in the mid-1800s, they were used as replacements for ivory in billiard balls and dental plates. But the first completely synthetic substance didn't emerge until 1907, when chemist Leo Baekeland was cooking up chemicals in his Yonkers, N.Y., garage, hoping to develop a substitute for shellac. Demand for shellac--which comes from the shells of rare Asian beetles--had Skyrocketed because it could serve as an insulator for the new electrical wires. Baekeland created a liquid resin that hardened into a transparent, amber solid that wouldn't burn, boil, melt or dissolve--even in acid. Dubbed Bakelite, the "Material of a Thousand Uses" was soon found in electrical insulation, but also in jewelry, ashtrays and--its greatest triumph--the classic black dial telephone.

Around the same time, Swiss chemist Jacques Edwin Brandenberger grew disgusted with the stained tablecloths in French cafes. Why not invent a covering that could be wiped clean? When Brandenberger squirted cloth with liquid viscose, a cellulose product, the tablecloth became glossy but stiff. Then he tried making viscose film into transparent sheets, which he called cellophane (from the French words cellulose and diaphane, meaning diaphanous or transparent). He sold it to the motion-picture industry as a replacement for cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable film. But cellophane distorted under heat. So Brandenberger marketed it as a wrap, selling it from a fancy Paris boutique. Prices were so high that at first cellophane was used only to swathe the finest French perfumes--and was kept locked in store safes at night. Later, the impermeable film became a lifesaver in gas masks. And it revolutionized packaging of candy and cigarettes--especially once Du Pont scientists invented a moistureproof version in 1926.

By the late 1920s, industry was luring young scientists away from academia. Du Pont, in particular, was a hotbed of scientific research. The company hired a young Harvard chemist, Wallace Hume Carothers, to head its lab. Carothers, who later became the first industrial chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, believed that small molecules could be combined to form larger, more complex ones called polymers. Using this method, Carothers and his team developed neoprene, the first synthetic rubber. Then they embarked on a quest for artificial silk. After toying with these polymers for several years, Carothers's crew developed a plastic that could be stretched into long, thin, elastic strands like bubble gum. But the new fiber melted in hot water and dissolved during dry cleaning. It took a few more years of tinkering to perfect the material, which was given the pedestrian name Fiber 66 because it had six carbon atoms on each side of the polymer.

Carothers's revolutionary fiber was later test-marketed in the bristles of Dr. West's Miracle-Tuft toothbrush. But its official debut came on the legs of Miss Chemistry at the 1939 World's Fair in New York--by then it was called nylon. Nylon stockings weren't widely available until May 15,1940, marketed as N-day, when American women snapped up 5 million pairs of the sheer, sexy legwear. Demand for nylon soared during World War II, when the fiber was used to make parachutes and to reinforce tires. Carothers's discovery of polymers spawned a whole new wave of polyester fabrics, including Dacron, the synthetic wool that launched the leisure suit. (Carothers didn't live to see it. In 1937, just 19 days after applying for the Fiber 66 patent, he committed suicide.)

By then, a far bigger world of plastics was taking shape. In 1929, a B.F. Goodrich organic chemist, Waldo Semon, was trying to bind rubber to metal when he stumbled upon a polymer called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It was a lousy adhesive, but when Semon molded it into a ball, it bounced down the hallway--unusual behavior for a synthetic rubber. "I knew I had something different," says Semon, now 99. But he didn't know what to do with it until he watched his wife, Marjorie, sew a shower curtain from rubber-lined cotton. PVC, he thought, would make the perfect waterproof coating. Semon took a sample of PVC-coated fabric into his boss's office, placed it on top of the in/out basket and dumped a decanter of water over it. "It scared him stiff," recalls Semon, but the papers stayed dry. Vinyl proved to be cheap and fire resistant, and it could be molded into myriad shapes. It soon appeared in thousands of products such as garden hoses, the tops of convertible cars and long-playing records.

Vinyl wasn't the only accidental plastic. In 1933 Ralph Wiley, a college student who scrubbed glassware in a Dow Chemical lab, came across one vial he couldn't clean. Wiley dubbed the substance that stymied him "eonite," after an indestructible material in the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." Eventually it was made into a greasy, dark green film, which Dow called Saran. The military sprayed it on fighter planes to guard against sea spray; carmakers used it for upholstery. Later Dow rid the film of its green color and unpleasant odor and marketed it as Saran Wrap, the clingy covering that changed the American kitchen.

By the second half of the 20th century, the American public had become so accustomed to plastic that it had turned a bit scornful of the stuff. It was increasingly viewed as cheap, fake and destructive to the environment--plastic became a pejorative for anything that lacked real substance. But after Malden Mills and Patagonia marketed a synthetic sheepskin called Polar Fleece in 1981, plastic regained some of its chic. Microfiber--yes, it's a finely knit polyester--even struts onto fashion runways. And a new line of "bioplastics," biodegradable polymers derived from starches and proteins, are improving plastic's eco-image. In the past six years, 250 patents have been granted for polyester alone. It has been 30 years since Dustin Hoffman was given his famous career advice in the movie "The Graduate." It's still a pretty good tip.

Plastics | News