The word “plastic” comes from the Greek “plassein,” which means to mold or shape. Plastic was developed mainly to do just that—take the shape of any object.
The invention of plastic came about as the demand for ivory elephant tusks was rising and elephant populations were dramatically decreasing. Commonly used for billiard balls (as well as combs and other items), as the table sport became more popular, the use of ivory became prohibitively expensive. In 1863, a billiard company put an ad in the newspaper offering $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a replacement for ivory-made billiard balls. This gave John Wesley Hyatt the idea to create a synthetic polymer made of cotton and nitric acid, which he and his brother called celluloid.
As it would turn out, celluloid was not very good for billiard balls, but it was good for molding into the different shapes, ranging from piano keys to film cannisters. When celluloid hit the market, it was advertised as an animal-friendly alternative to ivory and tortoise shells. The process of creating celluloid was dangerous, though, as it was highly flammable.
Later, in 1907, Leo Baekeland was looking to create an alternative to shellac. A natural substance, shellac comes from the excretion of the lac beetle, and it takes a long time to produce. Baekeland wanted a material that was durable, heat-resistant, and a good insulator. He used phenol from coal tar in his creation, which he called Bakelite. In creating Bakelite, he produced the first fully-synthetic plastic, and came to be known as “The Father of the Plastics Industry.”
The invention of Bakelite paved the way for the development of newer plastics that are still manufactured today such as polystyrene, polyester, PVC, polythene and nylon.
The production of plastics boomed during World War II. Plastic was a cheap alternative to a variety of other materials during a time of penny-pinching. Nylon was used for everything from parachutes and ropes, to body armor and helmet liners. Even after the war, people continued to use plastic because it was cheap, and production levels remained high as people found more uses for it.