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Reading Selection, Lesson 22

Synthesizing New Materials

early television made of Bakelite

This vintage television was made from Bakelite™, an early plastic.

Imagine what it would be like to invent a new substance. Many of the materials that we take for granted were invented. These materials are synthetic, which means they don't exist in nature. They have been made—or synthesized—from natural substances. Can you think of any examples of synthesized substances?

Probably the most well known group of synthetic substances is the plastics. Some of the early plastics were made from natural substances, such as cellulose and latex, which are found in plants. The first really synthetic plastic was called Bakelite™, after its inventor, Leo Baekeland. In 1907, he found a way to control a chemical reaction between two existing substances to produce a brittle, dark brown plastic that was, because of its insulating properties, used for making electrical fittings and household items.

Wallance Carothers stretching a piece of nylon.

In 1931, Wallace Carothers, working at Dupont, invented a silklike synthetic plastic that was eventually called nylon. He made it by mixing together an acid and a solution of another substance, diamine. Nylon, when used as a fiber, has many of the properties of silk but is stronger. In this picture, Carothers demonstrates another synthetic compound—a type of rubber.

Synthetic Materials Help Win a War
Many new synthetic plastics were first produced in bulk in the 1930s, just in time to play an important role in World War II. Here are some examples, which contributed to the victory of the Allies.

Silkworm in its cocoon.
Silk, used to make parachutes, is produced by silkworms. It was in short supply during World War II, but nylon came to the rescue!











A man and a woman stand beside a barrel used to collect used stockings

Nylon and silk stockings were recycled to ensure adequate supplies.

Paratroopers falling out of the sky over Holland
Nylon was used in the manufacture of parachutes for aircrew and paratroopers.












Soldiers lifting a jeep

When the Japanese army took over the rubber plantations in the Far East, rubber was in short supply. The tires on this army truck were made from a new plastic, sometimes called synthetic rubber.

Woman working on electrical wires

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was used to insulate electrical wires inside aircraft.








Hundreds of synthetic plastics are in use today, all with different properties. They are used in products as varied as soda bottles, lenses, and artificial body parts.


Soldier gaurding an airplane Polyacrylics (for example, Plexiglass™) were transparent and light and didn't shatter like glass—ideal properties when it came to aircraft manufacture.


1. Pick a product such as Velcro or Teflon and conduct Web research to see how it is made.

2. Browse the Internet to find out if there is a relationship between synthetic materials and pollution.


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