Plastic acrylics are used in so many applications, in so many areas of life; it’s hard to imagine a world without them. Where would we be had the science behind this revolutionary material never been explored? If acrylic had never been developed, would we be stuck with heavy, expensive objects instead of the relatively light and inexpensive materials we are familiar with today? What would brochure holders, brochure displays, racks, counter displays, donation / suggestion boxes and point of purchase (p.o.p) displays be made from? We all take it for granted, but the history of plastics and acrylics is worthy of understanding.
“Plastic” means to form or model something. This helps to understand the overall concept. It all really started in 1773 with the discovery and isolation of the compound “urea”, which is found in the urine of mammals and other higher forms of animal life. In 1828, when urea was synthetically produced, the foundation for phenol-formaldehyde plastics was formed. That brings us to 1843 when an acrylic acid preparation was reported. Following that, Dr. Otto Rohm published the results of his research with acrylic resinoids in 1901. His thesis, “On the Polymerization Products of Acrylic Acid” explained how the polymers obtained in his research had simultaneous properties of a tough, flexible glass and a rigid plastic.
Next came Dr. Leo Baekeland. In 1909, he secured the first patent for phenol- formaldehyde, which he combined to form a resinous substance, a phenolic plastic. He called it “Bakelite”. This material could be softened with heat and then molded into shape. It could then be set into final form by continued heating under pressure while in the mold; a true plastic. This was revolutionary. As a result, Baekeland’s discovery triggered the imagination and research of organic chemists worldwide.
Acrylic resins started being used in 1931 for industrial coatings and laminated glass binders. The better known derivative of methacrylic acid, polymethyl methacrylate, was not introduced until 1936 as a transparent sheet and in 1937 as a molding powder. This marked the start of the acrylic era and the Plexiglas revolution.
In World War II, acrylic sheet played an important role as a bullet resistant glazing in warplanes because it was light, strong and could be easily formed to fit into the structural designs of aircraft. It was at this time that Plexiglas started being used in homes and factories for safety glazing, electrical and chemical applications, skylights, windscreens and many other uses.
Some key dates:
o 1911: Research commenced in the field of acrylics.
o 1928: Methyl methacrylate Acrylic poster holder was synthesized in the laboratory.
o 1933: A method was found to cast methyl methacrylate between two plates of glass and to polymerize it inside this cell. This was a crystal-clear, hard and break-resistant plastic.
o 1934: Initial applications were for cover glasses, watch glasses and lenses for protective goggles.