Sunday, November 10, 2019

Frontispiece, excerpts and thoughts on 1944's "Plastic Horizons"

This frontispiece of Plastic Horizons (which also serves as the dust jacket cover) is in thematic lockstep with midcentury science-fiction, specifically the optimistic thread that imagined a wonderful future for all, one filled with soaring towers and space-age transportation.

Yet this is a non-fiction book — and a very technical one at times — written by B.H. Weil and Victor J. Anhorn of Gulf Research & Development Company, which began operation in the late 1920s and was tasked with discovering uses for all that black gold that Big Oil was pumping out of the ground.1 The book was part of the "Science for War and Peace Series,"2 which was published by The Jacques Cattell Press right here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My used copy of Plastics Horizons once resided in The Tower Room at Dartmouth College Library before being discarded.

In 1944, The New York Times reviewed Plastic Horizons and declared in the headline that it was a "Balanced Survey of the Plastic Age."3 Here are some excerpts from Weil's and Anhorn's book:

  • "In recent years ... this hazy concept of the role of research and innovation in industry began to change. We could hardly help noticing the new world which was forming around us. The clothes we wore, the dentures we placed in our mouths, the cars we drove — all these and countless other things began to intrigue our fancy and stimulate our imagination. When war came again, we were already awake to the fact that science could give us nylon hose and shatterproof windshields along with high-octane fuels and potent medicines, so we were not taken unawares by radar, rocket bombs, and Norden bombsights, even though we generally lacked the training to understand them. It is not strange, therefore, that in recent years we have become increasingly aware of a new group of substances which industry is using in increasing quantities to shape our surroundings. Lovely in form and appearance, or sturdy and serviceable, as the case may be, these substances — plastics — created by our scientists from nature's raw materials, are among the most important triumphs in the field of creative chemistry."
  • "It is little wonder that the popular press has adopted plastics for its very own and has proceeded to sketch a picture of the future in terms of plastic furniture, garments, dwellings, automobiles, trains, and airplanes. Plastic manufacturers share the amusement of producers of steel, aluminum, and other construction materials at some of these flights of fancy, but all of industry is now agreed that plastics have come of age and will certainly find far greater use in the future than they have in the past."
  • "Plastic closures on containers for food, drugs, cosmetics, and chemicals have proved attractive, sanitary, and long-wearing. Transparent plastic packages were used before the war to enhance the appearance of flowers, silverware, cigars, candies, linens, and other goods; transparent wrapping such as cellophane will continue in heavy demand."
  • "There may be no Plastics Age, but that should discourage no one; applications will multiply with the years. ... Justifiable optimism is the order of the day, and the return of peace will enable the plastics industry to fulfill its promise of things to come."

In an article for Grist earlier this year ("How the U.S. got addicted to plastics"), David A. Taylor states his belief that "Plastic Horizons undersold its subject. Its closing chapter hardly seems to anticipate the ubiquity of plastics we see today, along with its formidable waste problem."

It's easy to agree with Taylor. Plastics are affecting everything. Just this morning, I was reading an essay by author Tom Cox, who was primarily commenting on seals in the United Kingdom but went off on this tangent:
"Horribly, several seals have recently been seriously injured by plastic objects at Horsey. ... In eras to come, the rise of plastic will surely be remembered as humanity’s most baffling collective delusion. How did we ever not all realise our use of it would kill the world? All those years, all those people, trusting that bins were some magical portal to a universe where man-made crap vanished. Once you’re tuned into the problem, you find yourself looking at everything around you differently: Remembrance Day Poppies, clothing tags, crisp packets, the cellophane on paper bread bags that lets you see the bread, cat food pouches. It’s all been said a lot recently: for change to really happen, it needs to come from corporations, from those in power, not just from the consumer habits of individuals. But that’s no reason not to change your consumer habits as an individual."
That's just an excerpt. I recommend reading Cox's entire piece.

1. In April 1985, The New York Times reported that "The Gulf Oil Corporation ... was donating its nearby research and development center, valued at more than $100 million, to the University of Pittsburgh." The Harmarville, Pennsylvania, facility had once employed 2,000 people but that number had dwindled to 800, the Times reported.
2. Other books in the series included 1943's Food Enough by John Donald Black1 and 1944's Peace, Plenty and Petroleum by Benjamin Talbott Brooks.
3. The New York Times review was penned by Waldemar Kaempffert (1877-1956), a science writer who was also a member of the American Society for Psychical Research and a vigorous defender of the theory that Martians had created a series of canals on their planet.

Secondary footnote
1. Speaking of food enough, I'm finishing up End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World: Asteroids, Super Volcanoes, Rogue Robots, and More by Bryan Walsh, and he is detailing how we could feed Earth's remaining population in the event of an apocalyptic event (supervolcano, asteroid, nuclear war) that blotted out the sun for many years. The cheery answer: mushrooms, rats and bugs.

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