As described in the post about rubber, Charles Goodyear created the vulcanization plastic making mass-market rubber possible. Goodyear’s durable rubber enabled an entire field of new products from tires to raincoats.
However, rubber is both thick and spongy, giving it limited utility. Nobody is going to create a rubber telephone and a rubber water bottle — despite that it might be chic — isn’t especially practical.
Enter modern plastic.
Alexander Parkes created Parkesine, arguably the first plastic, in 1856. It was brittle, flammable, and not especially useful though opened the idea that a synthetic material might have enough utility to create a larger market.
One of the most common uses for Parkesine was to make early movie film, though the Parkesine film — exposed to a high-heat lamp when run through a projector — had a tendency to catch fire and sometimes burn down theaters.
John Wesley Hyatt refined Parkesine into modern more useful plastic. Parkes sued Hyatt for patent infringement and lost at first. However, a different judge eventually ruled Parkes was the inventor of plastic.
As usual, the litigation helped the lawyers but didn’t do much for either inventor and, in any event, Hyatt’s plastic was far more useful. It wasn’t the plastic we know today but was strong enough to be used for billiard balls, fake teeth, and various machine parts.
The new plastic was also resistant to heat, humidity, and fire resistance; it didn’t burst into flame. That made it especially valuable to the then-burgeoning auto industry that required a material with exactly those properties for their cars.
In 1895, Hyatt hired master manager Alfred P. Sloan to manage the company. Sloan eventually bought Hyatt out, purchasing his shares though leaving him as President.
Hyatt’s company, Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, was eventually sold to General Motors. Sloan went along with the sale and, not long after, went on to become the long-time legendary CEO and President of GM.