Accidental Invention: Synthetic Plastic

In today’s world, the term “plastic” is ubiquitous, encompassing a vast array of materials that have become indispensable in our daily lives. Originally derived from natural materials like horn and rubber, the development of synthetic plastics emerged as a response to the growing demand for durable, versatile, and cost-effective materials. From early semi-synthetic forms to the diverse range of polymers we use today, plastics have evolved from a scientific marvel into a manufacturing staple.

Contrary to what we associate it with today, “plastic” was originally an adjective that meant “pliable and easily shaped.” Now, it is a name used to refer to a specific group of materials called polymers, which are made up of long chains of molecules. Polymers are abundantly present in nature, but in recent years, scientists have begun creating synthetic versions as a more widely available form of “plastic” substances.

Saving the Elephants

While regular production of consumer goods grew significantly following the Industrial Revolution, the availability of naturally-derived materials did not, and manufacturers were faced with the need for synthetic materials that could keep up with demand. For millennia, natural plastics such as horn, tortoiseshell, amber, rubber, and shellac were commonly used to create a variety of products, from jewelry and combs to cutlery and piano keys. However, in the late 19th century, a growing concern arose over the environmental impacts of using these materials, emphasized by the suggestion that elephants were in danger of becoming extinct due to the popularity of using their tusks to make goods from ivory.

In 1863, a New York billiards supplier published an ad offering $10,000 in gold to anyone who could create a sufficient alternative to ivory. In response, businessman John Wesley Hyatt began experimenting with various combinations of solvents, building off the research of chemist Alexander Parkes, who created the first manufactured plastic, “Parkesine,” out of cellulose nitrate. By combining nitrocellulose with camphor, Hyatt invented celluloid – the first semi-synthetic plastic, which was quickly put to use in the manufacturing of goods meant to mimic the look and function of items made from natural materials.

Fake it ‘Til You Make It

The first fully synthetic plastic, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, was inadvertently created in 1907 by scientist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in his pursuit of a less expensive and more readily available substitute for shellac. One day, during his experimentation, he combined formaldehyde with phenol and applied heat to the mixture. When he returned the next day, he discovered a substance not like the shellac he was expecting but rather a polymer that did not melt, dissolve, or crack. He named the substance Bakelite and three years later established a company to manufacture it commercially.

This revolutionary new form of synthetic resin quickly became a popular choice for commercial and industrial goods, and it was advertised as “the material of a thousand uses.” Its combination of moldability and durability made it excellent for a variety of applications, especially in the growing automotive and electric power industries, where it was used for components such as knobs, dials, circuitry panels, sockets, and insulators. It even introduced the novelty of making brightly-colored items, including buttons, jewelry billiard balls, iron handles, and children’s toys. By 1944, Bakelite could be found in more than 15,000 different products and is still commonly used to make dominoes, mah-jongg tiles, checkers, and chess pieces.

Life in Plastic

The invention of Bakelite marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry, spurring the manufacture of a multitude of products enhanced by the new materials that offered more desirable properties than previously utilized natural resources, such as toasters, coffee makers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, headphones, and more. Other scientists soon also developed new forms of thermosetting plastics that eventually became favored over Bakelite for their increased durability and flexibility, as well as other versatile compounds such as polystyrene, polyester, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, and nylon.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of types of polymers that can be customized for different purposes just by changing their structure (e.g., adding an additional carbon molecule to flexible polyethylene creates a more robust polypropylene.) In response to environmental concerns, companies have also begun developing different kinds of plastic, such as polylactic acid (PLA), derived from corn starch and can be composted, disintegrating over time. Similarly, there has also been a return to the use of natural materials to create bioplastics, such as polyethylene made from sugar cane.

The invention and proliferation of plastics represent a transformative chapter in the history of materials innovation, which has not only revolutionized manufacturing processes but also played a pivotal role in shaping modern consumer culture. What began as a quest to find alternatives to natural materials like ivory and shellac has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry with applications ranging from consumer goods to cutting-edge technologies, leaving an indelible mark on both science and society

If you enjoyed this invention story, you might also like these about seismographs, silly putty, and super glue.

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Accidental Inventions

Mothers of Invention: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

A trailblazer in science and technology, theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is responsible for the research behind numerous innovations in telecommunications such as the touch-tone telephone, portable fax, and fiber optic cables. Her legacy is also that of an influential leader in education & public policy and a steadfast advocate for women and minorities to join the scientific community.

With an impressive career spanning multiple industries such as academia, government, and business, theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has shattered glass ceilings while significantly impacting how we communicate and connect in the modern age. She is credited for numerous advancements in science and technology, education, and public policy, leading her to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.

History-Making Education

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was born in Washington, D.C. on August 5, 1946. From a young age, she showed a remarkable aptitude for science and mathematics, which led her to pursue higher education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There she earned her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees – all in physics – becoming one of the first two African American women to earn a doctorate in physics in the U.S., and the first to earn a doctorate from MIT.

Telecommunications Research

In 1976, Dr. Jackson joined the technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where she researched the electronic properties of ceramic materials and began her work in telecommunications. Throughout her tenure, she conducted pioneering research that laid the groundwork for many of today’s telecommunications technologies such as the touch-tone telephone, portable fax, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Dr. Jackson was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences & the American Physical Society, and she has received 53 honorary doctorate degrees.

The impacts of her research cannot be overstated. The touch-tone telephone made communication more accessible and efficient for millions worldwide and laid the groundwork for the foundation of mobile phones, smartphones, and other handheld devices integral to our daily lives. Similarly, her work on fiber optic cables became the backbone of modern internet infrastructure, making high-capacity data transmission possible. This real-time communication across continents has transformed industries, facilitated remote work and learning, and fostered global collaboration on an unprecedented scale.

Presidential Status

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson as the first African American Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), where she implemented significant improvements in regulatory environmental and public health & safety standards and led the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA). Later, President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and named her co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee.

From 1999 to 2022, Dr. Jackson served as the 18th (and also the first woman and African American) president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where her efforts to improve the quality of education and research opportunities significantly increased the university’s national rank and the number of student applicants. During her tenure, she led initiatives to attract low-income, female, international, and other underrepresented students, seeing the value of differing perspectives and advocating for more women and minorities to pursue careers in science. Today, RPI has more diversity in gender, ethnicity, and geographic background than ever before.

Awards and Recognition

Throughout her illustrious career, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has been presented with numerous honors and accolades for her work. In 2007, she received the National Science Board’s Vannevar Bush Award for “a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.” In 2011, she earned the prestigious Philip Hauge Abelson Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her “extraordinary leadership of and contributions to the scientific community, government, universities, industries, and future generations of science and engineering professionals.”

In 2012, Dr. Jackson was given the inaugural America Competes Award for Public Service by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, calling her “a leader who has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life in America and abroad, through public service and private sector outreach, and to those who show an extraordinary commitment to excellence and the American spirit.”

On May 19, 2016, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to science and engineering. On what she now considers the proudest day of her career, she was recognized for her achievements in research, science-rooted public policy, and inspiring the next generation of STEM talent – the three main fields in which she strived to make a difference.

Dr. Jackson’s journey serves as an inspiring example of what’s possible when passion, talent, and opportunity intersect. Her groundbreaking work in telecommunications has enriched our lives in countless ways, and her influence as an advocate for women and minorities has empowered students and other researchers to become more involved in science and technology for decades. As stated by Time Magazine, she is “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.”

For more stories about professional women whose perseverance made them inspirational figures in their fields, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering. You can also read about the innovations of Alice H. Parker, Grace Hopper, and Hedy Lamarr.

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Accidental Invention: Kevlar

While often associated with high-stakes industries like defense and aerospace, Kevlar has been used in a variety of products, including tires, gloves, sports equipment, and more. The fibrous material that began as an unexpected discovery in a laboratory has gone on to save lives, transform industries, and inspire engineers around the world.

Kevlar, a super-strong synthetic fiber, is a key component in everything from bulletproof vests to racing sails. Kevlar’s durability and versatility make it a go-to material for improving product performance and safety. The story of Kevlar is a compelling blend of scientific curiosity, accidental discovery, and valuable innovation.

An Unexpected Solution

In the mid-20th century, chemist Stephanie Kwolek was employed by the DuPont Company to work on projects involving polymers and low-temperature condensation processes. At one point, she was tasked with finding a new variety of lightweight, durable, and heat-resistant fibers to replace existing steel wires in car tires. During her research, she worked with synthetic polymers (or polyamides), dissolving them in solvents and then running the solution through a machine that would spin it into fiber.

One day in 1965, during her experimentation, Stephanie got an unexpected result. Instead of the typical thick, transparent polymer solutions she had grown accustomed to, this new solution was cloudy and watery. She then spun the mysterious substance and consequently created one of the strongest fibers the world had ever seen.

A Fiber of Many Uses

Following the discovery of Poly(p-Phenylene) Terephthalamide and its valuable traits, DuPont began commercially producing the product under the name Kevlar. While it became a component in radial tires as originally intended, the material also found its way into numerous other applications. Due to the fibers’ impressive toughness (up to five times stronger per weight than steel), durability, and heat-resistant qualities, Kevlar proved useful in other industries, such as defense, aviation, and construction.

Today, one of Kevlar’s most common applications is in protective gear. With its incredible tensile strength, heat tolerance, and resistance to penetration, it has been used to make bulletproof vests, work gloves, and firefighter suits. Kevlar’s remarkable qualities are also used in racecar tires & brake pads, parts for aircrafts, spacecrafts, and boats, and sports equipment like medicine balls, mountaineering ropes, and tennis racquets.

Weaving the Future

Over the years, scientists and engineers have pushed the boundaries of Kevlar’s capabilities. Different formulations and treatments have been developed to enhance its resistance to chemicals, flames, and abrasion, making it suitable for an even wider range of applications. DuPont continues its commitment to invest in constant quality improvements.

As we look to the future, Kevlar’s potential seems limitless. Researchers are exploring ways to integrate the fibers into wearable technology, medical devices, and even lithium-sulfur batteries

Kevlar’s journey from a serendipitous laboratory discovery to a global engineering staple is nothing short of remarkable. With ongoing research and development, the future of Kevlar holds promise for even more groundbreaking applications thanks to its impressive durability and versatility.

If you enjoyed this accidental invention story, you may be interested in reading about Safety Glass, Super Glue, and Silly Putty.

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Accidental Invention: Saccharin

If you’ve ever looked through a collection of sweeteners for your coffee or tea, you’ve probably found several packets in various colors. But do you know what is actually inside? The pink one contains saccharin – a zero-calorie sugar alternative that was a surprisingly serendipitous result of laboratory experimentation 150 years ago.

A substance that is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin was the first-ever sugar substitute and has been commonly used as a calorie-free beverage additive for decades. Though there has been much debate about its potential health impacts, saccharin has continued to be one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market.

A Sweet Surprise

In 1876, American chemist Ira Remsen returned from Munich and Gottingen University in Germany where he studied sulfobenzoic acids and subsequently established the first chemistry department at the newly-established John Hopkins University in Baltimore. A year later, the firm of William H. Perot & Co. hired German chemist Constantin Fahlberg to conduct an advisory examination of a shipment of demerara sugar that was alleged to have been artificially darkened to avoid higher import taxes, with arrangements for him to work in Remsen’s laboratory. After completing his analysis, Fahlberg received permission to stay at the university, and began researching coal tar derivatives alongside Remsen and his team.

One day, after returning home from the lab, Fahlberg noticed the piece of bread he was eating tasted exceptionally sweet. However, he quickly realized that it was not actually the food that was sweet, but his hands. So, he returned to the lab and tasted all of his beakers, glasses, and bowls until he determined which substance was the source – an oxidation of ortho-toluenesulfonamide that created benzoic sulfimide, which he called saccharin, meaning “of or resembling sugar.”

Sweeter than Sugar

Over the next few years, Fahlberg and Remsen co-authored an article describing the synthesis of saccharin, highlighting that the compound was miraculously “sweeter than cane sugar.” Though Remsen did not like the concept of industrial chemistry, Fehlberg recognized the commercial potential of his discovery and applied for both German and American patents to cheaply produce the substance in larger quantities. Despite Remsen’s protests, Fahlberg was awarded a US patent in 1886 and began manufacturing saccharin in pill and powder forms, marketing them as beverage additives.

Before too long, however, competitors and consumers began having concerns about consuming saccharin and, with the release of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, Americans began to demand action in response to food-industry horror stories. As a response, Harvey Wiley, head chemist of the US Department of Agriculture, proposed the first saccharin ban, believing that it could not possibly be safe. This was quickly shot down by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was given a prescription from his primary physician for the substance as a weight-loss strategy, stating “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot. Dr. Rixey gives it to me every day.”

Sickly Sweet

Eventually, in 1912, saccharin was banned for use in food manufacturing, but it was still available as a standalone product, continuing to be a desirable “non-fattening” alternative for diabetics and those looking to cut calories. Soon, it became an even more popular substitute due to sugar shortages during the World Wars. In the 1960s, saccharin gained even more traction as American interest in weight loss continued to grow, and the recognizable brand Sweet’n Low was created.

Several studies conducted on rats in the following years suggested a link between saccharin and bladder cancer, leading to the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977, which required products containing the ingredient to have a warning label stating it may be hazardous to the health of consumers. However, later findings concluded that those results were irrelevant because humans metabolize the chemical differently, and it was removed from the potential carcinogens list in 2000, rescinding the packaging regulations.

Though there has been continued controversy about artificial sweeteners, the discovery of saccharin opened the doors for new innovations that have provided numerous alternative choices for individuals looking for low-calorie sugar substitutes. As consumer preferences continue to trend towards “lighter” and healthier options, it’s likely that artificial sweeteners will remain significant in the food and beverage industry for years to come.

If you enjoyed this tale of accidental innovation, check out similar stories about Corn Flakes, potato chips, and penicillin.

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Alice Parker

Mothers of Invention: Alice H. Parker

If your home gets cold in the winter, you adjust the thermostat. However, in olden days, keeping a house warm involved laborious maintenance of wood or coal burning fireplaces and stoves. That all changed in 1919 when inventor Alice H. Parker received a patent for a “new and improved” furnace that paved the way for the HVAC systems we use today.

Before the era of central heating and air conditioning, keeping homes warm was not an easy task – and maintaining a constant temperature of your choosing was nearly impossible. Then, over a century ago, a revolutionary invention from a woman who overcame the odds to share her design with the world laid the framework for the comfortable climates we enjoy today.

No More Stoking the Fire

Little is known about Alice H. Parker, the African-American inventor credited with creating the model for today’s central heating systems. She was most likely born during the late 19th century in Morristown, New Jersey and was well-educated, having potentially been a graduate of Howard University with honors. However, other commonly-reported details of Alice’s life cannot be reliably confirmed due to conflicting documents, and the photos typically associated with her are of different women.

What is known is that a woman with that name received a patent on December 23, 1919 for a “new and improved” heating furnace powered by natural gas. At the time, natural gas was used for lighting and industrial heating, but most homes used wood-burning fireplaces or coal-burning stoves for warmth. Alice’s design offered a “comparatively simple, reliable, and efficient solution,” eliminating the labor necessary for keeping a fire going, as well as the smoke, soot, and ash that came along with it.

Turning up the Heat

Alice’s heating system worked by drawing in cool air and passing it through a series of small furnaces all connected to a common heat exchanger. Then, after being warmed using combustion of natural gas, the air would travel through ducts to individual rooms throughout the house. Notably, it was the first design to incorporate individually-controlled heating units, allowing each room to be set to its own temperature.

The move away from the use of coal or wood was revolutionary for several reasons, including eliminating the need to chop wood, reducing the risk for accidental fires, and providing a more cost-effective energy source. It was also a miraculous feat for Alice to have received a patent at all, considering she completed the process largely on her own in a time when women were not even allowed to vote, and many universities were not admitting black students into their programs.

Going With the Airflow

While her exact design was never actually implemented due to concerns of heat flow regulation, it became a significant framework for the central home heating models of the future. Today’s HVAC systems utilize similar components such as thermostats, zone heating, and forced air furnaces. It is said that her inspiration came from dealing with inefficient methods of heating her home during cold New Jersey winters, and her solution laid the framework for future generations to avoid such challenges.

In 2019, Alice’s accomplishments were recognized by the National Society of Black Physicists, acknowledging that her invention “conserved energy and paved the way for the central heating systems in homes today.” That same year, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce established the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Awards, celebrating the pioneering contributions by women to the state.

While much of her legacy remains a mystery, Alice H. Parker deserves credit for her impressive invention and ability to successfully receive a patent despite her societal limitations at the time. Her design continues to make a significant impact on the comfort of our homes, for which we can all be grateful.

For more stories about professional women whose perseverance made them inspirational figures in their fields, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering. You may also be interested in reading about the innovations of Josephine Cochrane, Margaret Rudkin, and Martha Coston.

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Inventions Ahead of Their Time: French Fries

Is there anything better than biting into a fresh, salty, crispy french fry? Whether served alongside a burger or dipped into your milkshake, there’s no denying their deep-fried deliciousness. But where did this iconic side dish come from, and how did it become the beloved treat we know today? The original recipe is probably older than you think…

When you think of making french fries, you probably envision thin potato strips cooking in a restaurant’s industrial-sized fryer filled with bubbling hot oil. While this iconic side-dish staple is most often associated with fast food and “American-style” restaurants, french fries were not originally created in the US. And, although they seem like a modern food, the first french fries were likely invented over 250 years ago.

Belgian Fries?

The history of french fries is a bit of a culinary conundrum. While the name suggests a French origin, some food historians argue that the story begins in Belgium. One theory involves potatoes that were brought to Europe from Peru by Spanish forces in the late 17th century. At the time, Spain controlled what is now known as Belgium, so the citizens of the area were among the first to be introduced to the vegetable.

The nearby River Meuse served as an abundant source of fish, and locals would fry small ones to go along with their meals. However, when the river froze over in the winter, they began frying thin strips of potatoes instead. As the story goes, the villagers fed these fried potato sticks to soldiers while France was at war, and soon after, they became popular around the world.

However, some historians doubt the plausibility of this theory. They suggest that potatoes were not introduced to that specific area until decades later. Plus, at the time, oil and fat were too expensive and difficult to find in large quantities for frying food.

Paris Fries?

As you might guess, the French also stake a claim to the invention of french fries. According to popular lore, they were sold by street vendors in the late 18th century near Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. This suggests there was no single identifiable creator, but that it was likely the invention of a Parisian peddler.

According to food historian Pierre Leqluercq, the first recorded mention of “french fries” was found in a Parisian book from 1775, and the first recipe was found in the 1795 cookbook La cuisinière républicaine. Soon therafter, a notable chef named Frederic Krieger began traveling through Belgium cooking “Paris-style fried potatoes.”

Francophone Fries?

Ironically, it’s believed that Americans were largely responsible for popularizing the dish by the name of “french fries.” One theory suggests that during WWI, American soldiers in Belgium discovered the food and referred to it as such because the local natives spoke French.

Another tale involves French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. When potatoes were originally brought to France from the New World, they were met with much skepticism. In an attempt to popularize the new vegetable, he held extravagant dinner parties where potatoes were served cooked in a variety of different ways. Potentially amongst his guests was President Thomas Jefferson, who is said to have encountered “potatoes served in the French manner” during his time as an ambassador in France and returned home with a recipe that would make its rounds throughout America.

American Fries?

While french fried potatoes became popular several centuries ago, they may not have originally looked or tasted quite the same as they do today. The potatoes were likely sliced into chunks or rounds rather than “sticks” and only cooked once. The term “frenching” simply refers to a method of food preparation in which ingredients are cut in even sizes so that all sides are exposed to heat, such as in an oven or fryer. The first known recipe for the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, double-fried potatoes we love today did not appear until the early 20th century, in the Belgian book Traité d’économie domestique et d’hygiène.

In an interesting twist, modern American fast food chains are often credited with popularizing french fries on a global scale. During WWII, meat shortages resulted in restaurants searching for an inexpensive – yet filling – side dish, and french fries fit the bill. As these chains grew, more and more countries around the world began to enjoy the crispy, deep-fried potatoes we know so well. Today, nearly one third of all potatoes grown in the United States become frozen french fries, and the average American eats about 40 pounds of fries each year.

Whether you prefer Belgian-style with a dollop of mayo or classic American-style with ketchup, one thing is for certain – french fries have rightfully earned their place in the culinary hall of fame. While the exact recipe may have evolved over time, fried potatoes have fittingly remained a favorite dish in many cultures for centuries.

If you enjoyed this invention story, you might also like the ones about potato chips, cornflakes, and Heinz.

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Riata Center releases list of Cowboy100 honorees

Our beloved Chief Executive Officer, Denise McIntosh was named to list of upcoming honorees for the Riata Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to honor the third Cowboy100 Honoree Gala celebrating the business and leadership achievements of OSU graduate-owned or -led businesses. The gala will be held on March 29 at the Wes Watkins Center in Stillwater.

The Cowboy100 serves as a resource for students to engage with industry leaders, allows the Riata Center to be the reference point for entrepreneurship throughout the university and to raise funds for the Riata Center’s student programs and activities.

As part of the Cowboy100, the highest top-line revenue generating honorees for the years being measured are recognized on the Blazing10 list. While the overall list celebrates growth, the Blazing10 focuses primarily on top-line revenue, another important measure of business success.

“We are happy to release the list of the 2024 Cowboy100 honorees,” said Marc Tower, assistant dean for Outreach and Economic Development at the Spears School of Business. “The quality and diversity of this group is inspiring. We have companies and leaders from multiple industries, and from companies large and small. It is exciting to celebrate and share the hard work and success of these outstanding OSU graduates and Cowboy leaders. We look forward to celebrating their achievements on March 29.”

For more information and the complete list:


Accidental Invention: Safety Glass

Safety glass is commonly used in various applications where human safety is paramount. You’ll find it in vehicle windshields, architectural windows, shower enclosures, and computer monitors. As prevalent as this material has become, it’s a wonder to think it was stumbled upon by accident over a century ago.

We interact with glass daily, whether through our windows, eyeglasses, or smartphones. It’s a material so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted.

But safety glass is not your typical glass. Unlike regular glass, which shatters into sharp, dangerous shards when broken, it is designed to minimize injury in case of breakage. It does this by breaking into small, relatively harmless pieces or holding them together in a single sheet despite being cracked.

A Clumsy Discovery

In 1903, a French chemist named Édouard Bénédictus was working with a flask that had contained a dried residue of an alcohol solution of collodion. When he accidentally dropped the flask, he was surprised to see it didn’t shatter into shards as expected. Instead, it broke but held together in one piece.

Bénédictus’s discovery spurred further research into developing this newfound “unbreakable” glass. By 1909, he patented a product he called “triplex,” which consisted of two sheets of glass and a film of cellulose nitrate in between. Eventually, the middle layer was replaced by polyvinyl butyral (PVB) due to its improved strength and ability to maintain clarity. This highly durable material soon took shape as one of the main types of safety glass used today.

Different Types of Safety Glass

Laminated and tempered glass are two distinct types of safety glass, each with its own unique characteristics and advantages. The choice between the two depends on the specific safety and structural requirements of the application.

Laminated Glass

Laminated glass is constructed by sandwiching a layer of vinyl between two or more layers of glass, making it resilient and able to hold together when shattered and preventing it from breaking into sharp, dangerous pieces.

It excels in situations where maintaining the glass’s integrity upon impact is crucial, such as with automotive windshields, architectural windows, and glass doors. It provides protection against collisions and forced entry and even offers sound insulation. Laminated glass maintains its clarity even when cracked or shattered, making it ideal for architectural applications.

Tempered Glass

Tempered glass is made by heating regular glass to a high temperature and then rapidly cooling it, creating internal stresses that make it four to five times stronger than untreated glass. It is strong and designed to break into small, relatively harmless pieces when subjected to significant force, minimizing the risk of large, injury-inducing shards.

This type of glass is often used in applications where safety is important but maintaining structural integrity is not a primary concern. It’s commonly found in shower enclosures, phone screens, and automotive side and rear windows. Tempered glass is more resistant to scratches and other minor damage, making it suitable for everyday applications.

Applications of Safety Glass

Safety glass has become a staple in the construction and manufacturing of many of the items and structures we encounter every day. Some of the most common uses of it are:

1. Automotive Windows and Windshields: Car windshields are a prime example of safety glass. They are designed to stay intact in case of impact, while the passenger windows are designed to break into smaller, less harmful pieces, reducing the risk of injuries during accidents.

2. Large-Scale Architecture: Glass panels and windows in skyscrapers and public buildings use safety glass that can handle severe weather and accidents. It can also be used indoors for flooring, handrails, and viewing partitions.

3. Bulletproof Glass: In situations where extra durability is required, tempered and laminated glass can be combined to create bulletproof glass resistant to ballistic impact. This might be found in banks, government buildings, and military vehicles.

4. Commercial Businesses: Stores often employ safety glass in their doors, windows, and display cases to protect their spaces and expensive merchandise, such as art and jewelry, from potential damage and theft.

5. Residential Buildings: In houses, safety glass can be found in sliding doors, shower enclosures, and skylights. It can also be used in appliances such as oven doors, refrigerator shelves, and computer monitors.

From protecting us on the road to safeguarding us from architectural mishaps and potential injuries, safety glass has become an invaluable material in various applications. As we gaze through our windows, glance at our smartphones, and drive our cars, we can appreciate the hidden safety net that this ingenious invention provides, all thanks to one chemist’s accidental discovery over a century ago.

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