|90 As If On Cue: Plastics 1907
NOBODY WAS HAPPIER to learn of the invention of plastic than the world's elephants. For centuries, ivory had been the standard for everything from knife handles to billiard balls. In the 1880s, a dwindling supply of tusks and a billiard boom conjoined to create a crisis. The country's largest maker of balls, Phelan and Collender, anxiously offered $10,000 in gold--"a handsome fortune"--to any "inventive genius" who came up with a synthetic substitute for ivory. Pachyderms everywhere held their breath.
And held it and held it, for it wasn't until 1907 that Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-born inventor who'd made a bundle on quick-action photo paper, hit upon the right combo of phenols and formaldehyde. This first entirely synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was impervious to heat, electricity and acid. It was therefore a plus for pool, but also for the nascent auto and electronics industries. One great asset of plastic was versatility, and it came to be used in everything from telephones to toilets, ashtrays to airplane parts. By 1968 a young graduate looking for a surefire field was being urged to listen to "just one word--plastics"; 30 years later the miracle material has turned into a $260 billion industry that employs 1,381,000 worldwide. It's a plastic world we live in, and that's not always bad.
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