Change is rare when things are going well. The beginning of the history of modern plastics involved a well-known ecological problem: the demand for ivory, which was used to make billiard balls, had almost caused the Ceylon elephant to die out in the second half of the 19th century. The dilemma was addressed by the synthesis of the plastic celluloid by the American chemist and inventor John Wesley Hyatt in 1867. In his development, which contributed to the continued existence of the elephants, the American chemist had relied on the 1855 patent of the British Alexander Parkes, who, however, had not succeeded in exploiting his invention in a meaningful way.
Celluloid was not only suitable for the inexpensive imitation of animal luxury products such as ivory, mother-ofpearl or horn. The plastic caused a sensation above all as the material on which Hollywood built its future – as a flexible photographic flm invented by the American Hannibal Goodwin, who had received US Patent 610‘861 for it on 13 September 1898.
At the same time, the advent of technical use of electric current led to the search for a suitable insulator. The Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland, who emigrated to the USA, experimented with the condensation reaction of phenol and formaldehyde and invented Bakelite, the first completely synthetic plastic. Bakelite was used to manufacture switches, lamp sockets, radios, telephones and other components because of its heat resistance, electrical insulation properties, light weight and formability. Finally, there is Fritz Klatte, who also joins the list of early plastics pioneers. It was Klatte who created the conditions for the industrial production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the most important plastics of the 20th century.
For a long time, the discoveries in the field of plastics, regardless of their great importance, were all more or less accidental discoveries that were attributable to the intuition and insight of the people involved. The shift towards a strategic orientation of polymer chemistry was only achieved with Hermann Staudinger and his theory of macromolecules in 1922, which he defended against ferce resistance from the professional world and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1953. Staudinger placed polymer chemistry in a scientifc context, the foundation on which important plastics such as plexiglass, polystyrene, polyethylene and polyamides have been developed in our era.
And the adventure of plastics continues, as a visit to K 2019 makes clear. At K, the modern pioneers of plastics history will present their achievements – and new progress will begin.