Although people had used organic plastic in some form or another for hundreds of years, completely synthetic plastic is a relatively new invention. For example, in medieval Europe, animal hairs were scratched thin and flat out to make transparent windows. Natural rubber rubber, later vulcanized and popularized by Charles Goodyear, is another common plastic that comes from natural sources. As time and technology evolved, natural plastics went into more and more products.
In the early 1900s, the emerging electronics industry in America and Europe imported imported shells from the ship's cargo to help isolate early electronic devices. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, which is then collected from the trees in countries such as India and Thailand. As you can imagine, it was quite expensive to import distilled secret from a remote bug to cover your electronic devices, and many companies were looking for options that did not involve so much labor, travel and costs.
For that purpose, Dr. Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist working in New York, discovered polyoxybenzylmethylene glycol hydride, or, as it was more known, Bakelite. In 1907, after extensive studies of natural polymers, Baekeland discovered, as the skeleton he tried to replace, that he could create a completely synthetic polymer by combining phenol and formaldehyde. The result was a synthetic polymer formed under pressure in molds to force the air bubbles out, creating a smooth and hard plastic plastic – the all-around 20th century plastic bakelite.
Bakelite is resistant to electricity, heat and chemicals, and thus found itself quickly in a variety of applications. Bakelite has been used to form consumer electronics bodies (such as the iconic black Bakelite phones, seen here), firearms, wire insulation, brake pads, camera bodies and much more. At one time under metal deficiency created by World War II, the US government thought it was making coins out of it.
When Dr Baekeland showed her completely synthetic plastic, the cat was out of the bag and now unique patches are made for all conceivable needs from plumbing to space exploration.
Picture of William Warby / Wikimedia.