Technology and Invention is a series by Rogers Corporation about the innovation, pioneering spirit, and transformative technologies that are creating a cleaner, safer, more connected world. Part 1: Historical Milestones.
Part 2: The Promise of Plastic
“Have you ever seen a polypropylene molecule?” a plastics enthusiast once asked me. “It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. It’s like looking at a cathedral that goes on and on for miles.” – Susan Frienkel in Scientific American
The word “plastic” comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.” The term was first recorded in the early 1900s, about 100 years after the early chemists starting working with natural rubber.
Plastics can be shaped because of their long, flexing chains bonded in a repeating pattern into one gigantic molecule. This structure promised a glorious revolution.
The plastics revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries held out the promise of a new material, even cultural democracy. “[Plastics] freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity,” said Susan Frienkel in “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World.” She continued, “That new elasticity unfixed social boundaries as well. The arrival of these malleable and versatile materials gave producers the ability to create a treasure trove of new products while expanding opportunities for people of modest means to become consumers.”
Parkesine is considered the first man-made plastic, patented by Alexander Parkes, Birmingham, UK in 1856. Made from cellulose treated with nitric acid as a solvent, it won a bronze medal at the 1862 World’s Fair in London.
Modern plastics development took a big turn in the 1860’s when a young printer, John Wesley Hyatt, used cellulose nitrate (celluloid) as a way to produce billiard balls from materials other than the rapidly diminishing supply of ivory.
In 1899, Arthur Smith patented phenol-formaldehyde resins for use in electrical insulation. Shortly thereafter, cellulose acetate, a thermoplastic, was developed; similar in structure to cellulose nitrate, it was found to be safer to process and use.
The commercial development of today’s major thermoplastics began in the 1930-1940’s. The advent of World War II brought plastics — polyvinyl chloride, low density polyethylene, polystyrene, and polymethyl methacrylate. — into demand, largely as substitutes for materials in short supply, such as natural rubber.
During this era, the major thrust of research at Rogers Corp. was centered in the new field of polymeric materials. In 1932, Rogers began a long-term association with Dr. Leo Baekeland, a Belgium-born, American chemist who invented Bakelite in 1907. Bakelite was an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile plastic that marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry. A popular product, Bakelite was the first plastic to hold its shape after being heated – also known as a thermoset plastic. Rogers’ association with Dr. Baekeland would lead to a family of phenolic resin plastics, Fiberloy, for insulation in early electric motors.
By the end of World War II, Rogers Paper Manufacturing Company was renamed Rogers Corporation, reflecting the broad diversity of products, services, and markets.
The Modern World of Plastics
The first decade after World War II saw the development of polypropylene and high density polyethylene and the growth of the new plastics in many applications. “In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture,” said Frienkel.
In 1949, Rogers introduced fiber-reinforced polymer materials – named Duroid® – for gaskets and electrical insulation. In 1953, RT/duroid® glass microfiber and ceramic fiber-reinforced PTFE materials were developed, initially as chemical resistant gasket materials. Rogers entered the Space Age when Duroid® 5600 was incorporated in the Jupiter space vehicle as the electronic window material.
In the mid 1950s, Rogers acquired a small elastomer fabrication company in Connecticut, which developed Mektron® molded circuits for use in mechanical switches and timers in appliances, automobiles, and other industrial applications. This was the beginning of an extended period of sustained growth for Rogers Corp., for polymers, and for the new world of electronics.
Next: The Age of Electronics
Rogers Corporation provides innovative solutions for power electronics, advanced foams for cushioning and protective sealing, and high-frequency printed circuit materials. For over 180 years, we have empowered breakthroughs in reliability, efficiency, and performance, to help our customers build a cleaner, safer, and more connected world.