When was the first plastic made?

Plastics are made by a chemical process called polymerization. Even without today’s technology and up-to-date knowledge, chemists of the nineteenth century understood the making of plastic. The first plastic, vinyl chloride, was made in 1838. This was closely followed by styrene in 1839, acrylics in 1843 and polyester in 1847. But at the time, no-one realized the potential for their use.

Later that century, chemists decided to find chapter, substitute manufacturing materials. In 1869 John Hyatt discovered Celluloid while trying to find a substitute for ivory. This was a revolutionary material that was tough and malleable; it started a wave of chemists developing new synthetic materials.

However the biggest development of plastics was by Leo Baekeland, who discovered phenolformaldehyde in 1909. He found that this could be moulded into any shape and was cheap to produce. He called the product Bakelite and it was the first synthetic material to be produced in large quantities for mass use.

Fact file

Plastic is an ideal material for producing rainwear. It is water-resistant, air-permeable, shrink-resistant and can be easily wiped down.


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