The first PC that I ever bought, back in 1980, had a handmade case with polished wood panels. Just like the earliest cars, my Nascom Two had no tradition of its own to belong to and so ended up looking like some confused piece of furniture. Inside though, it was a different story - its 2MHz clock speed and 8Kb of memory may seem feeble now, but the underlying technology was the same as in any of todays PCs. That technology is about to change though, as new materials and new ways of making computers threaten to replace not just the inner workings, but the whole form of computing.
The foundations for this shift were laid down in 1905, when Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland began a research project that would revolutionise almost every aspect of modern life. Baekeland was no stranger to innovation. Having invented photographic paper, he sold the rights to George Eastman, founder of the Kodak empire, for $US1m in 1899. But his new project was to have even bigger repercussions. The work that he began a century ago now looks set to launch a whole new computer technology that could make silicon appear like a temporary detour. Of course, Baekeland knew nothing of this when he started. His aim was to create a better furniture polish.
At the time, shellac was the polish of choice for all fine furniture. The problem was that it was produced in minute quantities by an insect. Nurturing the insects, growing the plants that they feed on, and harvesting the shellac that they exuded made this a very expensive business. Industry needed a substitute, but nobody knew how to make one.
Shellac is what wed now call a polymer, but that name hadnt been invented back then. In fact, nobody even knew what molecular structure was involved. Undaunted, Baekeland designed a machine called a Baekelizer, which could perform chemical reactions under high temperatures and pressure, and experimented with various ingredients. Eventually, he created a dark resinous substance out of formaldehyde and phenol. It didnt solve the polish crisis, but it did result in an extraordinarily versatile material, unlike anything that had been seen before. It was named Bakelite.
Bakelite was the first completely synthetic plastic. Before long, nylon, acrylic, PVC and other polymers came along. Since then, the number of plastics has grown to many thousands and new ones are being developed all the time. Although the early discoveries displayed a wide range of properties, one thing they all had in common was that they wouldnt conduct electricity. In fact, many were superb insulators. So much so that plastics soon became ubiquitous insulators used in almost all electrical equipment.
But thats just the beginning. Over the years, a few strange plastics have been discovered. Some are excellent conductors of electricity, some even behave as semiconductors. During the 1970s and 1980s, many researchers believed that a new age of polymer electronics was imminent, but their hopes were repeatedly dashed. Its only now that electric plastic is becoming a practical reality, though not in any of the ways originally imagined.
This Feature appeared in the November, 2000 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine