The 1940s was a decade full of challenges and opportunities for plastics. The industry was not brand new — Leo H. Baekeland began small-scale production of phenol-formaldehyde thermosetting resins in 1907, that's considered the birth of the modern plastics industry.
But 1942, when SPE got off the ground, was a much more important year for plastics.
The first SPE newsletter, dated May 1942, included the text of a speech by Charles Higgins, president of Hercules Powder Co., at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s meeting that month in Hot Springs, Va.
Higgins' words, even on paper, sound like a speech given to a football squad at halftime:
“I am telling you nothing new when I say that the big problem confronting the plastics group today, as it faces all other industries, is the transition to a war economy,” he said.
His focus was an issue that was holding back plastics' growth: the availability of chemical raw materials, which were being diverted to other industrial sectors.
“You can see that the vital materials of plastics are actually the vital materials of war. When you hear that Allied planes bombed Tokyo or the German industries of the Ruhr Valley, you may have the satisfaction that diverted plastic chemicals helped to do the job,” he said.
Those must have been bittersweet words to the throng of executives who were clamoring for materials that they desperately needed to help with the war effort.
They wanted to help. They needed to help. But plastics processors in the 1940s were still using primitive equipment, like injection molding presses with plungers instead of reciprocating screws. Modern thermoplastics, including polyethylene, polystyrene and PVC, were still relatively new. They offered great potential, but processors needed help learning to use them — even getting samples necessary to tackle new applications.
Into the breech came SPE. It was started by an active group of executives in Detroit as the Society of Plastics Sales Engineers — the word “sales” soon disappeared. Within months, more SPE groups were organized around the country. The industry was thirsty for technical information. By 1943, the first Annual Technical Conference attracted 1,775 registered visitors and 59 exhibitors.
Bregar's report from 1992 helped me get to know those industry pioneers. He interviewed Pauline Conley, widow of Fred Conley, the first SPE president; charter members A. Reynolds Morse, Robert G. Dailey and George S. Hendrie Sr.; and many more.