A Slow Start for Plastic Bottles

This story takes some explaining. Long ago, before there was chemistry, there was alchemy. Alchemy was the quest on the part of investigators who sought to turn lead into gold. Nowadays we know it would take an atom smasher to pull off this feat. But long ago, it was believed to be possible by simple means. What's more is the economies of most cultures until modern times were based on gold. Now being able to make gold cheaply would amount to counterfeiting, and would have disastrous effects on the economy. So the practice of alchemy was often banned by kings and emperors and such. Knowing how important it was for the rulers to keep gold valuable, we can read what a monk known only as Bartholomew the Englishman wrote in his book, On the Properties of Things. Bartholomew lived in the thirteenth century, and in his book he tells us about the Roman inventor who made an unbreakable bottle:

"But long time past there was one that made glass pliant, which might be ammended and wrought with an hammer, and brought a vial made of such glass before Tiberius the Emperor, and threw it down on the ground, and it was not broken but bent and folded. And he made it right and ammended it with a hammer. Then the Emperor commanded to smite off his head anon, lest his craft were known. For then gold should be no better than fen [clay], and all other metal should be of little worth, for certain if glass vessels were not brittle, they should be accounted of more value than vessels of gold."

Now we can't be sure just what this unfortunate inventor had come up with, but we can say that Emperor Tiberius was just a bit hasty. The polymers which are used today for unbreakable bottles, such as poly(ethylene terephthalate), sell for only pennies per pound.

Source: Holmyard, E.J.; Alchemy; Pelican Books, Ltd.; Marmondsworth, U.K.; 1957.
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