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PLASTIC by Stephen Fenichell

PLASTIC

The Making of a Synthetic Century

By Stephen Fenichell

Pub Date: July 17th, 1996
ISBN: 0-88730-732-9

 A wooden attempt to do for plastic what Daniel Yergin did for oil. From nylon to Kevlar to Lucite to Silly Putty, Fenichell (Other People's Money, 1985) tries to provide an encyclopedic catalogue of the development and cultural impact of a material that has more incarnations than a Hindu deity (although, despite his general thoroughness, he omits such minor frissons as Haskelite). Developed during the golden age of chemistry, when dedicated amateurs bumbled about in makeshift labs seeking substitutes for silk, rubber, even ivory billiard balls, most early, cellulose- based plastics were the result of fortuitous accidents, usually spills, fires, or mistakes. Haphazard discovery yielded to invention when the amateurs were replaced by teams of industrial chemists on the payrolls of giant chemical corporations such as Du Pont and I.G. Farben (which, as Fenichell details, collaborated extensively with the Nazis). Huge profits were made as product after product rolled out of the research labs. Sometimes, as with Silly Putty, it was years before anyone could think of a use for the new materials. With the debut in 1939 of nylon, the first all- synthetic fiber, plastics began to take a strange hold on the American imagination, inducing a kind of kitschy madness in which hygiene and similitude were paramount. Fenichell has dug up a number of fascinating and revealing tidbits, and his account has a certain quirky appeal. But it is poorly organized and repetitive, as he jumps from material to material (it would have worked better as an encyclopedia). Even for a lay audience, the chemistry is very skimpy, and except for some awkward interpolations, Fenichell tends to slight plastic's historical significance. Not a cheap, flashy bauble, but not quite brilliantly colored Bakelite jewelry either. (Radio satellite tour)