C&J Industries Blog

Plastic History: The Early Years (1839-1856)

1839- This was a very exciting time in the world of plastic. Vulcanization was invented! Charles Goodyear spent his life trying to improve the quality of rubber. Goodyear was a chemist who experimented with rubber, mixing it with everything and anything to improve the quality of the material.  In 1839, Goodyear experienced a break through which actually occurred by accident.  He spilled a mixture of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove.  Goodyear realized that when the mixture cooled it remained flexible.  He had discovered a process he called vulcanization.  Vulcanization involves the curing of rubber acid mixture with heat.  The product would remain flexible following this procedure.  Goodyear would not get credit for this discovery because Thomas Hancock would beat him in patenting his idea.  Vulcanization allows us to have many products today such as; tires, shoe soles, hoses, conveyor belts to name a few.


The second big discovery was the production of Polystyrene. Polystyrene is made of synthetic aromatic polymer which is a “polymer of styrene.”  This is a structure of a rigid transparent thermoplastic, resembling a stiff white foam. This material is one that everyone would recognize in the form of packaging peanuts, it can be used for plastic forks, DVD cases, toys, even the outside housing of computers.

1843- Rubber fire hoses are produced and Gutta Percha is created! Vulcanization was patented when it was discovered that if up to 30 percent of sulphur is added to rubber, a hard, rigid, thermoplastically moldable product was created. Thomas Hancock was responsible for this discovery. He devised many medical uses for rubber. Hancock also promoted the use of rubber rather than leather for fire hoses.  Vulcanization led to many remarkable new products.

Gutta Percha is a natural polymer, which is chemically the same as natural rubber, however, it has a different molecular shape, giving it different properties.  William Mongomerie introduced this product because of the materials ability to be heated and molded.  Gutta Percha is also able to maintain a tough form after being heated and molded, soon it was discovered this product could be an excellent electrical insulator.  Gutta Percha is also the product that has perfected the golf ball.

Heap of white golf balls background, 3D illustration

1856- The Union Case is invented! The first use of plastic in the world of industry occurred when Samuel Peck invented the Union Case.  This case was utilized to hold materials used in creating photographs.  The case was invented using a combination of gum shellac and woody fibers. These plastic daguerreotype cases were improved upon in 1857 when Alfred P. Critchlow made the case using riveted hinges to improve the product.

Plastic was created from animal blood! This was also the year that Francois Charles Lepage created a plastic based on the combination of animal blood and powdered wood. The wood dust, either ebony or rose wood was mixed with blood, dried and then ground to a fine powder.  The powder was placed in a steel mold and steam heated in a powerful press.  The mold was plunged into cold water.  This plastic was used to create caskets, inkstands, purses, frames, etc.


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