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For 100 years, plastic has been the real deal

LONDON — Strap on your PVC boots, hike up your nylon stockings. It’s time to celebrate the 100th birthday of the world’s first entirely synthetic material, one that revolutionized manufacturing, transportation, fashion and more.


An exhibition opening today at London’s Science Museum looks to a future that includes plastic blood and airplanes that can shift shapes in flight.

“It’s gone from one little sample of brown material in a man’s hand to just being everywhere,” said Alison Conboy, an exhibit organizer. “It’s hard to imagine a house that doesn’t have them.”

Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland created his phenol-formaldehyde polymer resin — Bakelite — in 1907. Although scientists had long tinkered with different types of plastics, so-called because of their malleability, his was the first fully synthetic material ever made.

Electrically resistant, chemically stable, heat-resistant, shatter-, crack- and salt-proof, the material was an enormous success. Soon Baekeland’s New Jersey factory was cranking it out for use in billiard balls, switchboards, tabletops, counters, gears and washing machines.

New products were introduced in rapid succession: rayon, cellophane, PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, and polyethylene joined Bakelite in the plastics revolution.

Some of the new products touched off consumer hysteria. Touted by DuPont Co. in 1939 as “smooth as silk, strong as steel,” nylons sparked melees as women mobbed department stores to replace their old stockings.

“Plastics” was the one-word piece of career advice offered to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1967 film, “The Graduate.” Perhaps more memorable was Anne Bancroft’s nylon-clad leg.

The principle behind nylon’s success — replacing an expensive organic material with a stronger, cheaper synthetic one — was repeated throughout the century.

Plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, Teflon-coated frying pans, Tupperware containers, Formica counters and plastic wrap invaded the kitchen, while men and women all over the world shed their silk and cotton for acrylic and polyester.

Plastic is already all around us, but someday it might course through our veins.

“The nature of plastic is such that you can create a molecule that’s very similar to hemoglobin — the cells that carry oxygen,” Conboy said. Beyond being more painless to obtain, the material can be carried and stored more easily than its bright red counterpart.


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