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High-performance Materials Timeline


Over the millennia human beings have tinkered with substances to devise new and useful materials not ordinarily found in nature. But little prepared the world for the explosion in materials research that marked the 20th century. From automobiles to aircraft, sporting goods to skyscrapers, clothing (both everyday and super-protective) to computers and a host of electronic devices—all bear witness to the ingenuity of materials engineers.

  1907   Bakelite created

Leo Baekeland, a Belgian immigrant to the United States, creates Bakelite, the first thermosetting plastic. An electrical insulator that is resistant to heat, water, and solvents, Bakelite is clear but can be dyed and machined.

  1909   Precipitation hardening discovered

Alfred Wilm, then leading the Metallurgical Department at the German Center for Scientific Research near Berlin, discovers "precipitation hardening," a phenomenon that is the basis for the creation of strong, lightweight aluminum alloys essential to aeronautics and other technologies in need of such materials. Many other materials are also strengthened by precipitation hardening.

  1913   Stainless steel is rediscovered

Although created earlier in the century by a Frenchman and a German, stainless steel is rediscovered by Harry Brearley in Sheffield, England, and he is credited with popularizing it. Made of iron with about 13 percent chromium and a small portion of carbon, stainless steel does not rust.

  1915   Pyrex

Corning research physicist Jesse Littleton cuts the bottom from a glass battery jar produced by Corning, takes it home, and asks his wife to bake a cake in it. The glass withstands the heat during the baking process, leading to the development of borosilicate glasses for kitchenware and later to a wide range of glass products marketed as Pyrex.

  1925   18/8 austenitic grade steel adopted by chemical industry

A stainless steel containing 18 percent chromium, 8 percent nickel, and 0.2 percent carbon comes into use. Known as 18/8 austenitic grade, it is adopted by the chemical industry starting in 1929. By the late 1930s the material’s usefulness at high temperatures is recognized and it is used in the production of jet engines during World War II.

  1930   Synthetic rubber developed

Wallace Carothers and a team at DuPont, building on work begun in Germany early in the century, make synthetic rubber. Called neoprene, the substance is more resistant than natural rubber to oil, gasoline, and ozone, and it becomes important as an adhesive and a sealant in industrial uses.

  1930s   Glass fibers become commercially viable

Engineers at the Owens Illinois Glass Company and Corning Glass Works develop several means to make glass fibers commercially viable. Composed of ingredients that constitute regular glass, the glass fibers produced in the 1930s are made into strands, twirled on a bobbin, and then spun into yarn. Combined with plastics, the material is called fiberglass and is used in automobiles, boat bodies, and fishing rods, and is also made into material suitable for home insulation.

  1933   Polyethylene discovered

Polyethylene, a useful insulator, is discovered by accident by J. C. Swallow, M.W. Perrin, and Reginald Gibson in Britain. First used for coating telegraph cables, polyethylene is then developed into packaging and liners. Processes developed later render it into linear low-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene.

  1934   Nylon

Experimenting over 4 years to craft an engineered substitute for silk, Wallace Carothers and his assistant Julian Hill at DuPont ultimately discover a successful process with polyamides. They also learn that their polymer increases in strength and silkiness as it is stretched, thus also discovering the benefits of cold drawing. The new material, called nylon, is put to use in fabrics, ropes, and sutures and eventually also in toothbrushes, sails, carpeting, and more.

  1936   Clear, strong plastic

The Rohm and Haas Company of Philadelphia presses polymethyl acrylate between two pieces of glass, thereby making a clear plastic sheet of the material. It is the forerunner of what in the United States is called Plexiglass (polyvinyl methacrylate). Far tougher than glass, it is used as a substitute for glass in automobiles, airplanes, signs, and homes.

  1938   DuPont discovers Teflon

Annoyed one day that a tank presumably full of tetrafluoroethylene gas is empty, DuPont scientist Roy Plunkett investigates and discovers that the gas had polymerized on the sides of the tank vessel. Waxy and slippery, the coating is also highly resistant to acids, bases, heat, and solvents. At first Teflon is used only in the war effort, but it later becomes a key ingredient in the manufacture of cookware, rocket nose cones, heart pacemakers, space suits, and artificial limbs and joints.

  1940s   Nickel-based superalloys

Metallurgists develop nickel-based superalloys that are extremely resistant to high temperatures, pressure, centrifugal force, fatigue, and oxidation. The class of nickel-based superalloys with chromium, titanium, and aluminum makes the jet engine possible, and is eventually used in spacecraft as well as in ground-based power generators.

  1940s   Ceramic magnets

Scientists in the Netherlands develop ceramic magnets, known as ferrites, that are complex multiple oxides of iron, nickel, and other metals. Such magnets quickly become vital in all high-frequency communications, including the sound recording industry. Nickel-zinc-based ceramic magnets eventually become important as computer memory cores and in televisions and telecommunications equipment.

  1945   Barium titanate developed

Scientists in Ohio, Russia, and Japan all develop barium titanate, a ceramic that develops an electrical charge when mechanically stressed (and vice versa). Such ceramics advance the technologies of sound recordings, sonar, and ultrasonics.

  1946   Tupperware

As a chemist at DuPont in the 1930s, Earl Tupper develops a sturdy but pliable synthetic polymer he calls Poly T. By 1947 Tupper forms his own corporation and makes nesting Tupperware bowls along with companion airtight lids. Virtually breakproof, Tupperware begins replacing ceramics in kitchens nationwide.

  1950s   Silicones

Silicones, a family of chemically related substances whose molecules are made up of silicon-oxygen cores with carbon groups attached, become important as waterproofing sealants, lubricants, and surgical implants.

  1952   Glass into fine-grained ceramics

Corning research chemist S. Donald Stookey discovers a heat treatment process for transforming glass objects into fine-grained ceramics. Further development of this new Pyroceram composition leads to the introduction of CorningWare in 1957.

  1953   Dacron

DuPont opens a U.S. manufacturing plant to produce Dacron, a synthetic material first developed in Britain in 1941 as polyethylene terephthalate. Because it has a higher melting temperature than other synthetic fibers, Dacron revolutionizes the textiles industry.

  1953   High-density polyethylene

Karl Zeigler develops a method for creating a high-density polyethylene molecule that can be manufactured at low temperatures and pressures but has a very high melting point. It is made into dishes, squeezable bottles, and soft plastic materials.

  1954   Synthetic diamonds

Working at General Electric’s research laboratories, scientists use a high-pressure vessel to synthesize diamonds, converting a mixture of graphite and metal powder to minuscule diamonds. The process requires a temperature of 4,800°F and a pressure of 1.5 million pounds per square inch, but the tiny diamonds are invaluable as abrasives and cutting points.

  1954   Synthetic zeolites

Following work done in the late 1940s by Robert Milton and Donald Breck of the Linde Division of Union Carbide Corporation, the company markets two new families of synthetic zeolites (from the Greek for "boiling stone," referring to the visible loss of water that occurs when zeolites are heated) as a new class of industrial materials for separation and purification of organic liquids and gases. As the key materials for "cracking"—that is, separating and reducing the large molecules in crude oil—they revolutionize the petroleum and petrochemical industries. Synthetic zeolites are also put to use in soil improvement, water purification, and radioactive waste treatment, and as a more environmentally friendly replacement in detergents for phosphates.

  1955   High molecular weight polypropylene developed

Building on the work of Karl Ziegler, Giullo Natta in Italy develops a high molecular weight polypropylene that has high tensile strength and is resistant to heat, ushering in an age of "designer" polymers. Polypropylene is put to use in films, automobile parts, carpeting, and medical tools.

  1959   "Float" glass developed

British glassmakers Pilkington Brothers announce a revolutionary new process of glass manufacturing developed by engineer Alastair Pilkington. Called "float" glass, it combines the distortion-free qualities of ground and polished plate glass with the less expensive production method of sheet glass. Tough and shatter-resistant, float glass is used in windows for shops and skyscrapers, windshields for automobiles and jet aircraft, submarine periscopes, and eyeglass lenses.

  1960s   Large single crystals of silicon grown

Engineers begin to grow large single crystals of silicon with nearly perfect purity and perfection. The crystals are then sliced into thin wafers, etched, and doped to become semiconductors, the basis for the electronics industry.

Borosilicate glass is developed for encapsulating radioactive waste. Better but more expensive trapping materials are made from crystalline ceramic materials zirconolite and perovskite and from the most widespread material of all for containing radioactivity—carefully designed cements.

  1962   Nickel-titanium (Ni-Ti) alloy shape memory

Researchers at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak, Maryland, discover that a nickel-titanium (Ni-Ti) alloy has so-called shape memory properties, meaning that the metal can undergo deformation yet "remember" its original shape, often exerting considerable force in the process. Although the shape memory effect was first observed in other materials in the 1930s, research now begins in earnest into the metallurgy and practical uses of these materials. Today a number of products using Ni-Ti alloys are on the market, including eyeglass frames that can be bent without sustaining permanent damage, guide wires for steering catheters into blood vessels in the body, and arch wires for orthodontic correction.

  1964   Acrylic paints

Chemists develop acrylic paints, which dry more quickly than previous paints and drip and blister less. They are used for fabric finishes in industry and on automobiles.

  1964   Carbon fiber developed

British engineer Leslie Phillips makes carbon fiber by stretching synthetic fibers and then heating them to blackness. The result is fibers that are twice as strong as the same weight of steel. Carbon fibers find their way into bulletproof vests, high performance aircraft, automobile tires, and sports equipment.

  1970s   Amorphous metal alloys created

Amorphous metal alloys are made by cooling molten metal alloys extremely rapidly (more than a million degrees a second), producing a glassy solid with distinctive magnetic and mechanical properties. Such alloys are put to use in signal and power transformers and as sensors.

  1977   Electrically conducting organic polymers discovered

Researchers Hideki Shirakawa, Alan MacDiarmid, and Alan Heeger announce the discovery of electrically conducting organic polymers. These are developed into light-emitting diodes (LEDs), solar cells, and displays on mobile telephones. The three are awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2000.

  1980s   Rare earth metals

Materials engineers develop "rare earth metals" such as iron neodymium boride, which can be made into magnets of high quality and permanency for use in sensors, computer disk drives, and automobile electrical motors. Other rare earth metals are used in color television phosphors, fluorescent bulbs, lasers, and magneto-optical storage systems with a capacity 15 times greater than that of conventional magnetic disks.

  1986-1990s   Synthetic skin

Engineers develop "synthetic skin." One type seeds fibroblasts from human skin cells into a three-dimensional polymer structure, all of which is eventually absorbed into the body of the patient. Another type combines human lower skin tissue with a synthetic epidermal or upper layer.

  1990s-present   Nanotechnology

Scientists investigate nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on atomic and molecular scales. Electronic channels only a few atoms thick could lead to molecule-sized machines, extraordinarily sensitive sensors, and revolutionary manufacturing methods.


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     Essay - Mary L. Good

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