The cell phone: the one thing we’ve all become completely dependent on. Imagine a world without rubber, a world without silicon, a world without those pieces of plastic that are in your hand right now.
It all started in 1600 with the fluyt, a Dutch super-ship that enabled the Dutch to pick up trade all over Europe. The British “went Dutch” by investing in the 747 of the 17th century to bolster trade. However, lengthy voyages revealed the vulnerabilities of the ship’s hulls; the only treatment at the time was “pitch” — a mixture comprised of turpentine and tar, coincidentally made cheaply in the American colonies. By the end of the 18th century, America had revolted, ending the supply of cheap pitch and tar for the British.
Meanwhile, Archibald Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald, was able to produce coal-tar to remedy the British pitch shortage; naturally, he immediately thought of commercializing his new invention on an industrial scale in hopes of selling it to the British Royal Navy. Unfortunately for Cochrane, the British had already started using copper on the bottom of their boats. However, Scottish engineer William Murdoch used the gas byproduct of coal-tar for gas lighting, providing light until the early 1800s.
By 1823, Scottish chemist Charles Mackintosh took this leftover sludge by inventing a rubber solution to make waterproof clothing, eventually introducing the world to the Mackintosh raincoat. Unfortunately, Mackintosh was unable to get higher-quality rubber from the Far East because the Imperial Administration was too involved in making quinine to fight malaria.
The cinchona tree was unable to grow elsewhere, forcing the British to come up with artificial quinine; in 1856, English chemist William Perkin played around with coal-tar and not only discovered artificial quinine, but also artificial dye. But because most British investors were not science savvy, Perkin’s German advisor brought this idea to his homeland, vastly boosting German industries and by 1870, the world was more colorful than ever.
In 1895, Canadian chemist Thomas Willson discovered the next natural replacement of coal-gas lighting, an efficient process of producing calcium carbide that was used in the production of acetylene gas, but was eventually superseded by new gas lighting improvements.
Fast-forward to the end of World War I: Immense shortages resulting from years of war forced America and Germany back to the acetylene process for substitutes. After years of research with the acetylene family of chemicals, DuPont unveiled nylon in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York, introducing the world to plastic, leading to numerous life changing inventions and that cell phone of yours.