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Baekeland

Plastic

It's in our homes. It's the most common material in the workplace. Sometimes it's even in our bodies. We may be moving into the Information Age, but it's hard to believe that we are not living squarely in the Plastic Age.

The very name "plastic" means versatility. You can bend it, mold it, model it, twist it and ply it in a number of different ways. The finished product can be a soft and airy foam or a hard and strong compound rivaling the sturdiest metal alloys. In its many forms, plastic has forever changed the way we live.

The first in the long line of man-made plastics was called Bakelite, after its inventor, Leo Baekeland. Many years of work in his chemistry lab in Yonkers, New York, led him in 1907 to the invention of the first synthetic polymer (plastic), made by linking small molecules together to make large ones.

Baekeland made his new material by mixing the disinfectant carbolic acid (phenol) with the strong-smelling preservative formaldehyde to make a third material that was nothing like the original two. It turned out to be a substance that would change the world.

Some of the early uses for plastic were to make things radio cabinets, buttons, billiard balls, pipe-stems, toilet seats, airplane parts and, the object of Baekeland's research, shellac. Baekeland's trick was to take the resin produced by the two chemicals and heat it under pressure to produce a soft solid that could be molded and hardened or powdered and set under pressure. With this innovation, the plastic revolution was underway. [July 1996]

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