The Lucky Polymer

Swedish band ABBA introduced the first digital pop album on polycarbonate CD in 1982. (Polar Music International AB)

In 1934 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) rattled the art world with its radical exhibition of Machine Art, which included more than 100 everyday objects: a toaster, a cash register, pots and pans, typewriter-carriage springs, a self-aligning ball bearing. Seventy years later MoMA updated its exhibition, named it Humble Masterpieces, and included a Sony-Philips compact disc.

The CD was shown alongside other icons of 20th-century functionalist design: the Post-It Note, the Band-Aid, the Bic pen. Designed objects permeate our culture but are often invisible. Whether it’s a Post-It or a CD, most people never pause to contemplate the source of the thing in front of them. We are obsessed with brand names and famous faces—Apple, Steve Jobs—and ignore the backroom contributions of programmers and systems designers. Likewise, the history of the CD is often recounted as a triumph of electronics rather than as an achievement of chemistry.

The CD is made from polycarbonate, a plastic with great impact resistance. In 1953 General Electric chemist Daniel W. Fox was trying to create insulation for a wire and found his beaker filled with a substance that wouldn’t break. Around the same time, in Germany, a chemist at Bayer, Herman Schnell, made a similar discovery. GE and Bayer became the leading producers of the new material.

Crystal clear, lighter than glass, strong, and heat resistant, polycarbonate’s versatility and adaptability earned it the nickname “the lucky polymer.” It eventually displaced such acrylic plastics as Plexiglas and Lucite in car and truck headlamps, bulletproof sheeting, and general window glazing. It also became the resin of choice for other auto components, dentistry, bottles, and food packaging. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration used polycarbonate to mold the “bubble helmets” worn by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969.

A CD is molded from polycarbonate resin. In the molding process the CD is encoded with a series of microscopic tracks with pits and bumps, and the transparent plastic is subsequently coated with a reflective material, such as aluminum. A laser beam reads this binary computer code and transmits it to another part of the player that translates the information into sound. Philips engineers demonstrated a prototype of the world’s first compact-disc audio player in March 1979, and Sony introduced the world’s first portable stereo, the cassette-based Walkman, three months later. With complementary expertise the two electronics manufacturers joined forces to perfect and commercialize the CD audio system. The compact-disc player combined two technologies: laser reading of the stored information and digital processing of signals. Philips and Sony set the standards, ensuring that all CD players and CDs were compatible.

The disc pioneer was polymer chemist Dieter Freitag, who joined Bayer in 1968. When Philips came knocking in 1981, Freitag and his research team adapted Bayer’s Makrolon polycarbonate to the needs of the electronics industry, creating discs that were stable and readable, and had a high capacity for data storage. In 1982 the Swedish band ABBA introduced the first digital pop album, The Visitors, on polycarbonate CDs. In 1984 CBS Records opened the first American CD factory in Terre Haute, Indiana, and re-released Bruce Springsteen’s LP Born in the U.S.A. in the new format. Consumers dumped their turntables as they came to appreciate the convenience, portability, and sound clarity of the digital format. “It’s just been explosive, the most revolutionary change in the industry since the advent of the LP,” one record executive told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. Cassette tapes, like vinyl records, were soon obsolete.

Freitag marveled at the new digital technology, which could split a Beethoven symphony into millions of bits and replay it from a plastic disc the size of a person’s hand. But as CDs gained popularity, a fiery debate erupted among audiophiles. Analog devotees defended the superior sound of LPs and 45s. Folk rocker Neil Young led the charge against the digital age. “Listening to a CD is like looking at the world through a screen window,” he explained in 1992. “It’s an insult to the brain and heart and feelings to have to listen to this and think it’s music.” Protests aside, the march of polycarbonate continued. The CD was modified for data storage, and it soon replaced floppy discs in personal computers. In 1996 the digital versatile disc or digital video disc (DVD) was introduced; in 2006 the Blu-ray disc (BD) made its debut. The BD system uses better plastics and better lasers to store and read more information, but consumers have been slow to upgrade. The older luminous plastic discs, the CD and the DVD, seem to satisfy most people’s audio and visual needs.

By 2009 DVDs and CDs were the largest user of polycarbonate plastic, accounting for 24% of demand. But no sooner had the CD triumphed than it was challenged by the next new thing. Just as the music industry had moved away from vinyl records and cassette tapes, it is now moving away from CDs in favor of Internet downloads. The chemical industry now seeks new markets for its “lucky polymer.” Thanks to MoMA, future generations will remember the historic role of polycarbonate. The CD is an icon of 20th-century design, testimony to the prowess of chemists and chemical engineers, some of the most important, if anonymous, designers of the electronic age.

Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a Philadelphia-based historian and author who specializes in design, innovation, and the chemical industries. Learn more about her work at imaginingconsumers.com.

Sensing Change

See your environment with fresh eyes through this online exhibit.