Among other events that occurred on this date in history, U.S. Patent 942,699, directed to the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was granted to inventor Leo Baekeland. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Baekeland was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1978.
When the Bakelite patent issued in 1909, the world seemed to be getting along just fine without the new synthetics. For example, buttons were made of mussel shells, mostly on the banks of the Mississippi River, in Muscatine, Iowa, the Pearl Button Capital of the World. A billion buttons a year were being made from mussels before synthetics arrived. While working in an engineering co-op program in Muscatine, this writer once found a discarded mussel shell with several button-shaped holes.
In the 1950s, plastics were reinvented in newer and better forms. In 1963, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to the German Karl Ziegler and the Italian Giulio Natta “for their discoveries in the field of the chemistry and technology of high polymers.”
The cultural high point for plastics occurred in 1967 with the release of the movie the Graduate, featuring Dustin Hoffman as the disillusioned young college student. “Plastics,” uttered the older character Mr. McGuire in a single word of advice to Hoffman’s character, elaborating, “there’s a great future in plastics.”
Giulio Natta and his assignee Montecatini were among the several contestants in the historic “crystalline polypropylene” patent litigation, the culmination of which was the Federal Circuit opinion of 1989, I was one of the lawyers for the winning party, Phillips Petroleum Company. At issue in that case was Phillips’ U.S. Patent 4,376,851, issued to Hogan and Banks, with a priority date of January 1953. Those were the days when a patent could take 30 years to issue, and then run for another 17 years.
New and improved plastics are still being invented and patented. Today, global production of plastics has reached 400 million tons per year. Recycling and sustainability are among today’s hot topics. Leo Baekeland, who started it all a hundred years ago with Bakelite , could never have imagined.
That’s the way it is with inventions, patents, and production. You invent something. You patent it. You start production. You change the world. Repeat.