The Death of the Glass Bottle

December 15, 2008

Nathaniel Wyeth is probably not a name you know but Wyeth was responsible for inventing something you probably have in your home today. He worked from 1967 until he had refined and patented the process in 1973 for the now ubiquitous recyclable plastic soda bottle.  Until he applied his inventive skills, soda was not sold in plastic because it would expand or might even explode. You can read more about him at http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/wyeth.html His invention was but one in a long line of prior inventors whose efforts ultimately lead to the end of the era of the glass bottle.

Plastic was the undoing of the glass bottle.  The invention of plastic, or at least a plastic like substance was first introduced in 1862 at an International Exhibition. (http://ask.yahoo.com/20001102.html ) Celluloid was the next step. It is derived from cellulose and alcoholized camphor. John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid as a substitute for the ivory in billiard balls in 1868. (http://inventors.about.com/od/pstartinventions/a/plastics.htm )


The first synthetic plastic was called Bakelite was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland. It was made by mixing Carbolic Acid with Formaldehyde. In 1909, Bakelite was introduced to the general public at a chemical conference. Baekeland founded the General Bakelite Corp. (http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blbakerlite.htm ) Bakelite was used to make telephones, jewelry, machine parts, records, billiard balls, furniture and even weapons along with dozens of other everyday items.

In 1917, Webster Byron Baker invented a plastic bottle cap using a thin sheet of celluloid ester plastic.  This sheet was heated then crimped on the mouth of a bottle. Baker like others of the time was attempting to fit the caps to the bottle instead of the other way around.

Rupert Rundell invented a machine for crimping plastic caps on bottles in 1926. Until his invention other machinery could cap at best 6 bottles per minute but the industry needed equipment that could cap 50 per minute which his machine achieved.  Heretofore, bottles had been sealed with corks and had “cork tops”. A re-visioning was needed and came in a tsunami like deluge with Bakelite at the helm.

By the 1930s, bottles with screw threads and Bakelite caps were popular but they had a troublesome flaw. If over tightened, they would tend to split or crack.  Other materials were used. Aluminum was used for the shot glass tops of whiskey bottles in the early 1930s. Cheaper metals were used as well but tended to interact with the contents and foul the taste of the beverage. Even cardboard was used, especially on milk bottles. Airplane companies were innovators with plastics using acrylic to make windows for planes. The period just before and after the second World War lead to a proliferation of plastic materials, some of which were used for bottle caps.

The 1940s were the era of the Plastics.  Tupperware made its debut in 1946. While Tupperware did not make bottles, they made containers and it was a short ride to the plastic bottle. According to Wikipedia, “Plastic bottles were first used commercially in 1947, but remained relatively expensive until the early 1960's when high-density Polyethylene was introduced. They quickly became popular with both manufacturers and customers due to their lightweight nature and relatively low production costs compared with glass bottles. The food industry has almost completely replaced glass in many cases with plastic bottles.”

The companies which had dominated the glass and can industries were in the forefront of the plastic bottle revolution.  The invention of PET plastic forced both Owens of Illinois and Continental Can Company to join the movement to plastic. Owens had been engaged in the production of plastic bottle caps in the 1950s. In 1958, they approached bleach and laundry detergent companies to switch to their rigid plastic containers. (http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/OwensIllinois-Inc-Company-History.html) The new containers became instantly popular with the consumer and the rise of the plastic bottle was assured.