The early history of PVC was one of a polymer seeking usefulness.
Chemical researchers in the 1800s inadvertently discovered PVC by leaving vessels of vinyl chloride in sunlight, which polymerized the monomer into rigid solids. Scientists examined the material but could think of no use for it.
In the 1920s, vinyl finally hit its stride. Waldo Semon, a researcher at BFGoodrich Co., a predecessor to today's PolyOne Corp., found when he mixed chemicals with solid PVC, he came up with a flexible gel, the forerunner to today's plasticized PVC.
In his work in Akron, Ohio, Semon was trying to develop a cost-effective alternative to rubber. He occasionally caused explosions in his early experiments that made other researchers fearful for his safety. In 1926, he successfully produced a powdered resin that when mixed with hot solvents turned into a rubberlike material - flexible PVC.
Semon tried making shoe heels, tool coatings and wire jacketing out of the new material, but he was unable to get it to stick to metals. When the stock market crashed in 1929, BFG pondered whether to end the PVC experiments that seemed to be leading nowhere.
By another stroke of luck, Semon observed his wife sewing new curtains and dreamed up the idea of using the flexible PVC to coat fabrics. He demonstrated waterproof, PVC-coated fabric to management and BFG PVC-coated umbrellas, raincoats and shower curtains appeared on the market in 1931.
BFG soon developed another application - automotive shock-absorber seals. PVC's popularity soared during the 1940s as it presented consumers and industry an alternative to natural rubber made scarce by hostilities in regions of the world with rubber tree plantations.
About that time rubber also had entrenched itself as a nonflammable electrical wire coating, which to this day is a standard for wire insulation.
During the 1950s, PVC applications grew, the most important of which was PVC irrigation pipe, a less costly, easy-to-install and corrosion-resistant alternative to metal pipe. That use is now the largest single market for PVC. Construction materials, in general, use about 60 percent of the vinyl produced, amounting to more than 30 billion pounds worldwide for all markets.
In tonnage, PVC is the second-largest plastic resin used, following polyethylene. Vinyl-related businesses in the U.S. alone employ more than 100,000.