Many of the types of plastics we use each day have surprisingly interesting histories and stories of creation. As consumers we often don’t think about the type of plastic we are using or how it came to be. Was it created intentionally or by accident? Is it still used today for its original purpose? What is its effect on us? These are the kinds of questions we don’t typically think to ask, and we are actually missing out on fascinating history because of it.
Take cellophane for example. Cellophane has come a long way since its original creation in 1908 by Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger. The material was actually created as a result of a failed experiment by Brandenberger when he was originally trying to create a waterproof tablecloth. The story goes that Brandenberger was eating at a restaurant when he watched someone spill a glass of wine onto the nice tablecloth at their table. After seeing all the work and time this one spilled glass caused, it inspired him to create something that would repel liquids instead of absorb them. He set out to create this new type of tablecloth but was dismayed when he realized using viscose to spray a waterproof coating on fabric was too stiff.
But, with this failure came a realization: although the coated fabric was too stiff, it produced a clear film which easily separated from the backing cloth. He began exploring new possibilities with this great discovery. After ten years of research and experimenting, Brandenberger was able to create the waterproof material that was eventually named “cellophane.” “Cello” comes from the material used to create cellophane, cellulose, and “phane” comes from the French word for transparent, “diaphane.” With this creation Brandenburger also invented a machine that could manufacture cellophane in 1912. This marked the beginning of cellophane’s great potential and did not go unnoticed for long.
Cellophane was first used in the U.S. by Whitman’s Candy Company in 1912, shortly after the creation of Brandberger’s manufacturing machine. Whitman’s used the plastic for candy wrappers, and was the largest user of imported cellophane from France until 1924. It was in 1924 that cellophane received even greater attention by one of America’s leading plastics companies, DuPont.
DuPont saw the potential in cellophane and acquired U.S. patent rights in 1923 to begin production in Buffalo, New York. Although cellophane was waterproof it was not vapor-proof, meaning it was impossible to use for food packaging since moisture could still collect inside the cellophane. DuPont hired chemist William Hale Charch to solve this problem, and four years later, he did. Now that cellophane was both waterproof and moisture-proof it could be used for food packaging, which is exactly what it was used for then and still is today.
With the invention of moisture-proof cellophane came great benefits for DuPont, including a tripling in the material’s sales between 1928 and 1930. In 1938 cellophane accounted for ten percent of DuPont’s sales and twenty-five percent of its profits, making it one of their best selling products.
DuPont is well known for many other materials and products besides cellophane. Materials we use every day come from DuPont, such as nylon, artificial leather, ammonia, and rayon. Then there are the materials used in very specific applications that also come from DuPont, like Kevlar, the bulletproof material used in police vests. Another material used in specific applications is DuPont Vespel, a polyamide with a unique combination of properties that makes it ideal for aerospace and other highly specialized uses.
DuPont’s products are even more interesting when their history is known. Because of this, DuPont created several pages on their website dedicated to telling the stories of their various products, going all the way back to 1802, the very beginning of DuPont. To learn more about the history of DuPont’s products, check out http://www.dupont.com/corporate-functions/our-company/dupont-history.html.
For more on DuPont Vespel, visit their website.
For more on Jaques E. Brandenburger visit this site.
Alyssa Warner will be a senior at Judson University this fall. She is studying Graphic Design and has completed three internships in her field of study. Alyssa has interned at Kensington Church, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and thyssenkrupp Materials NA AIN Plastics Division.
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