When 3M introduced Scotch tape in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, it was a remarkably apt product for a scrimping and saving population — and an extraordinary advance. By combining two recent discoveries, masking tape and DuPont’s impermeable cellophane, 3M scientists had produced a clear, clean, inexpensive binding device, useful for mending rips in a wide spectrum of materials. Musicians used Scotch tape to patch ripped sheet music; women, to fix broken fingernails; accountants, to restore torn ledger books; and banks, to repair ripped currency.
Today, most of us take this enormously durable and useful product for granted. It clutters up our kitchen junk drawer, an early example of the robust innovation culture that once powered the chemicals and materials industries. Between the mid-1920s and 1970s, corporate researchers created a steady stream of breakthrough materials. Cellophane was one, but the most consequential materials were synthetic polymers — complex molecules manufactured by humans. Many of them made possible new classes of commercial products that became enmeshed in our daily lives: nylon, latex, synthetic resin, Bakelite, the synthetic fibers used in contemporary clothing, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, polyurethane, and silicon.
So relentless was the wave of innovation that in an iconic scene in 1967’s The Graduate, actor Walter Brooke gave Dustin Hoffman’s drifting character a single word of career advice: “Plastics!” But right about the time the movie came out, the wave began to subside, owing to a range of factors. The growing level of concern about the environmental and health effects of synthetic chemicals, the leveling off of the market for new products in industrial countries, the expiration of patents, the rising costs of R&D, and the shrinking number of new hit polymers all curbed the enthusiasm for new investment. In addition, rising pressures for short-term profits pushed large corporations away from long-term basic research. And so, as the chemicals industry matured, it increasingly focused on commoditization (and competition based primarily on price), consolidation, and the search for new markets in emerging economies.
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