Monday, January 24, 2011

20th Century 20 - 7

Singapore used to be a rubber colony. Rubber was big business: tires and all that. Nowadays rubber is no longer such a big business. It's replacement came from Leo Baekeland.

Baekeland invented Bakelite. Bakelite is goo that can be both molded and hardened. For eons gold has been prized for this quality: hard enough to be a metal, but soft enough to be manipulated. In 1909 Baekeland showed off something nearly as precious: plastic.

What was quickly discovered was that plastic wasn't just good for things like insulating cables (the initial use). The hard plastic was as valuable in the filmy, or rubbery varieties. It was only the first big hit of many plastics to be created.

Stop reading, and look around you, taking note of the plastic you are surrounded by. Your computer wouldn't exist without it. Your credit cards: what would they be made of? Metal? The film on your paint and on your scratch-free pots and pans. Lampshades, furniture, television sets, the lot. Even your polyester clothes. The only area plastics hasn't made significant progress is inside you body: provided you've not had any major surgery in your life.

From the dentist's office to the barber shop, and the supermarket shelves, plastic is totally omnipresent. But these are still child's toys compared to the real power of plastic. Change requires fluidity, adaptability. The 20th century could not have existed with the rate of change it has enjoyed and been oppressed by, were it not for this miracle material. Ideas only go so far – substantive materials are also needed to excite change. Unlike ideas marble, wood and metal aren't fluid. But plastic is.

The economies of millions of people and countries, besides Singapore's rubber plantations, have been effected. Now every human on earth has been fundamentally altered by the stuff with a million uses.

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