CELLULOSE NITRATE ERA SAVED ELEPHANT TUSKS

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Plastic was developed in response to the dwindling supply of elephant tusks. Originally made from ivory, billiard balls were made from cellulose nitrate and were considered a luxury item.

Soon expensive jewelry, faux tortoise shell items and toiletry sets made from cellulose nitrate were given as wedding presents.

``Plastic really is beautiful. It is an interesting material in whatever form it comes in,'' said Mike Sarna, a curator at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Alexander Parkes is credited with inventing celluloid in 1856. After acquiring a patent for his process in 1865, he went bankrupt because his products were of poor quality. John Hyatt found a way of solving the technical problems and began his business in 1870 to sell celluloid.

Cellulose nitrate, a semisynthetic plastic or a chemically modified natural polymer, was the first commercially viable plastic.

Some of the early celluloid objects are falling apart or have completely deteriorated because they were made from cheap ingredients. Some early celluloid products were made using silk and others from cotton rags.

Other problems plagued the production of cellulose nitrate. It could only be made in small batches, and the objects that looked the same could vary greatly in quality from batch to batch. DuPont Co. did not begin generating large batches until 1950 but, by then, cellulose nitrate had run its course.

In 1920, Hermann Staudinger proposed a theory about the chemical makeup of plastics. He called them macromolecules; we know them as polymers. His theory explained the nature of plastics and indicated the ways in which they could be made.

Staudinger fought for 15 years to convince fellow chemists that this was the foundation of plastics. Polyethylenes, PVC and polypropylene were developed based on Staudinger's theory.