Plastics timeline

Plastics have infiltrated almost everything to do with life and living from aviation to zip fasteners. They are found in art and design, social history and technological collections and are also among the ethnographic materials of the 20th century. They are a significant part of our cultural heritage. The stories that can be told about plastics are infinite.

The Plastics timeline introduces different plastics in a way that it is hoped will make clear the relevance of plastics to museums of diverse subject matter and suggest themes for research and display about plastics.

  • 1712

    John O'Brisset moulds snuff boxes from horn.

  • 1823

    Macintosh uses rubber gum to waterproof cotton and the 'mac' is born.

  • 1839

    First deliberate chemical modification of a natural polymer produces vulcanised rubber.

  • 1851

    Gutta percha used to insulate submarine telegraph cables between England and France.

  • 1853

    Shellac mixed with wood flour patented in USA as moulding material for making 'union cases', protective frames for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, early forms of photographs on glass.

  • 1855

    Soccer ball with vulcanised rubber panels, glued at the seams, designed and produced by Charles Goodyear.

  • 1861 - 1887

    Queen Victoria's mourning for the Prince Consort fuels the production of imitation jet mourning jewellery in such materials as cellulose nitrate, vulcanised rubber and horn.

  • 1862

    A range of toiletry and household objects, some imitating the appearance of tortoiseshell and ivory, made of an early form of cellulose nitrate, is displayed at the International Exhibition in London. The material was called Parkesine after its inventor Alexander Parkes. Ultimately Parkesine failed as a commercial venture.

  • 1870

    In USA Hyatt brothers in search of substitute material for ivory billiard balls turn cellulose nitrate into a commercially viable material. Dental plates are one of their good sellers. They register the name 'Celluloid' for their material in 1873.

  • 1884

    Cellulose nitrate modified to make artificial silk, called Chardonnet silk.

  • 1888

    First commercially successful celluloid (cellulose nitrate) photographic film introduced by George Eastman Kodak.

  • 1889

    Dunlop Rubber Company founded and motor industry revolutionised.

  • 1890

    Thermoforming introduced and used to make babies' rattles from cellulose nitrate.

  • 1892

    Cellulose acetate, first prepared in 1865, modified to make a form of artificial silk, called viscose. By 1904 this was known as rayon.

  • 1898

    Beginning of mass-production of 78rpm gramophone records from shellac, for which it remains the most common material until the 1940s.

  • 1899

    Casein formaldehyde patented as Galalith in Germany.

  • 1905

    Laminated safety glass, first with gelatine but then with cellulose nitrate inter-layer introduced.

  • 1907

    First synthetic (lab made) plastic, phenol formaldehyde, better known as Bakelite, later known as 'the material of a 1000 uses' introduced.

  • 1910

    Viscose stockings begin to be manufactured.

  • 1913

    Formica invented.

  • 1915

    Queen Mary orders casein jewellery at the British Industries Fair.

  • 1916

    Rolls Royce boasts about use of phenol formaldehyde in its car interiors.

  • 1920

    Hermann Staudinger publishes his realisation that plastics are made up of polymers. Only in 1953 was the value of his work properly recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

  • 1926

    Harrods, the London store, mounts a display of Beetle products, made from a form of thiourea-urea formaldehyde. It is a huge success.

  • 1926

    National Grid for electricity is established, fuelling the desire for consumer goods that plug in and switch on, often with plastic housings.

  • 1929

    Bakelite Ltd receives its largest ever order of phenol formaldehyde for the manufacture of the casing of the Siemens Neophone Number 162 telephone.

  • 1930

    Scotch Tape made from cellulose acetate, the first transparent sticky tape, invented.

  • 1933

    The British Plastics Federation, the oldest national organisation in the world with plastics in its name, set up.

  • 1935

    Couturier, Elsa Schiaparelli, begins to use zips made of cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate in her garments.

  • 1936

    Acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) canopies used in Spitfire fighter planes. From 1940 it becomes the most widely used material for aircraft glazing.

  • 1938

    First toothbrush with plastic tufts manufactured. The tufts were made of nylon (polyamide).

  • 1938

    Introduction of plastic contact lenses. The lenses were made of acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate).

  • 1939

    First polythene factory opens in Britain. Polythene plays a crucial role in the insulation of British radar cables during World War II. Entire production for military use.

  • 1939

    Plastic Man, a fictional comic-book hero, first appears.

  • 1945

    End of the war releases a range of plastics developed to support the war effort on the commercial market looking for uses.

  • 1947

    First acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) paint (dissolved in turpentine) becomes available. Appreciated by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein for its intensity and rapid drying properties.

  • 1947

    Tupperware, with flexible seals made possible by the invention of polythene, patented in the USA.

  • 1948

    Introduction of long playing vinyl copolymer gramophone records.

  • 1949

    Kartell, the Italian firm associated with plastic objects of desire for the home, founded.

  • 1949

    Charles and Ray Eames glass-reinforced plastic shell chair showed that plastic could be more than a furniture covering or veneering material.

  • 1949

    First Airfix self-assembly model produced. It was made of polystyrene.

  • 1950

    Early 1950s - The ubiquitous polythene bag makes its first appearance.

  • 1950

    Silly Putty, made from silicone, launched at the New York Toy Fair.

  • 1951

    First polythene bottle made by Sqezy.

  • 1953

    Commercialisation of polyester fibre introduces the concept of 'wash and wear' for fabrics.

  • 1953

    Chevrolet Corvette, the first mass-produced car with a glass-reinforced plastic chassis, begins manufacture.

  • 1954

    Synthesis of polypropylene.

  • 1956

    Reliant Regal 111, first commercially successful all glass-reinforced plastic bodied car, goes on sale.

  • 1956

    Eero Saarinen's Tulip chair, the seat consisting of a glass-reinforced plastic moulded shell, launched.

  • 1957

    The Monsanto Company's House of the Future with 100% plastic structural parts built at the entrance to Disneyland's Tomorrowland.

  • 1957

    Polyvinyl chloride road cones used in the construction of the M1 motorway.

  • 1957

    Invention of polyacetal, the first 'engineering' plastic.

  • 1958

    American Express launches first plastic credit card in US.

  • 1958

    Lego decides to concentrate exclusively on plastic toys and patents its stud-and-block coupling system. Originally made of cellulose acetate, it has been made of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) since 1963.

  • 1959

    Birth of the Barbie doll, made mainly of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and the Lycra (copolymer of polyurethane) bra.

  • 1960

    Early 1960s - Acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) paint (diluted with water) comes on market and is soon widely used by artists such as Warhol, Rauschenberg and Hockney.

  • 1962

    Silicone gel breast implants pioneered successfully.

  • 1963

    Mary Quant launches her 'Wet Collection' made of plasticised PVC (polyvinyl chloride). It had taken two years to work out how to bond the seams successfully.

  • 1963

    Robin Day polypropylene one-piece injection moulded chair shell begins manufacture.

  • 1965

    Twiggy models John Bates's plasticised PVC (polyvinyl chloride) dress.

  • 1967

    Inflatable PVC (polyvinyl chloride) 'Blow' chair designed by DePas, D'Urbino, Lomazzi and Scolari for Zanotta SpA, launched.

  • 1969

    Neil Armstrong plants a nylon (polyamide) flag on the moon.

  • 1969

    Beatles' song 'Polythene Pam', the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World released on Abbey Road album.

  • 1970

    Verner Panton's cantilevered stackable chair, the first whole chair to be made out of a single piece of injection-moulded plastic becomes a reality. He had been working on the design since 1960. The first pilot production models were made of glass-reinforced polyester resin in 1967. It has since been made of polyester integral foam, polyurethane, styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) and polypropylene.

  • 1976

    Plastic, in its great variety of types, said to be the material with the most uses in the world.

  • 1976

    Concorde with its nose cone of purpose-made plastic goes into service.

  • 1977

    PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) drinks bottle introduced.

  • 1978

    Poly Styrene, lead singer of the Punk band X-Ray Spex, bursts on the scene with 'the day the world turned day glow'.

  • 1980

    During this decade ICI and Bayer launch a range of new engineering thermoplastics. Costs are enormous but specialist applications make a lasting market even after ICI retreats from the plastics market.

  • 1980

    First artificial heart made mainly of polyurethane implanted in a human.

  • 1983

    The slim Swatch watch launched, its case of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and strap of PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

  • 1983

    Authentics Ltd., British firm renowned for its sharp, modern designs in various plastics for domestic use, founded.

  • 1988

    Triangular recycling symbols identifying different types of plastics introduced.

  • 1990

    First biodegradable plastics launched by ICI.

  • 1993

    Alessi designs its first all plastic product: the Gino Zucchino sugar pourer designed by Guido Venturini.

  • 1994

    Smart car with lightweight flexible integrally coloured polycarbonate panels introduced.

  • 1998

    Amorphous free standing Zanussi Oz fridge, with insulation and outer-skins made in one process from polyurethane foam, launched.

  • 2000

    Issues relating to sustainability and the creation of plastics from renewable sources start gathering momentum.

  • 2005

    Nasa explores the advantages of a polythene-based material, RXF1, for the space-ship that will send man to Mars.

  • 2007

    Tate Britain's Christmas tree decorated with plastic Airfix planes.