Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has a relatively interesting origin, all things considered. Much like radioactivity and platinum, PVC was discovered by accident in the eighteenth century. Scientists noted an important observation: a petroleum product called vinyl chloride gas (formerly used as a refrigerant), when subjected to sunlight underwent a transformation that turned the gas into the early forms of PVC. This transformation process was called polymerization, hence the “poly” in polyvinyl chloride.
PVC was first produced in 1872 by German chemist, Eugene Baumann. The discovery was not thought to be very significant at the time and was all but forgotten about since mass manufacturing of PVC was inconsistent and unreliable. Fritz Klatte, another German chemist, later patented a process to manufacture PVC using acetylene and hydrogen chloride with mercuric chloride as a catalyst. This main concept is still used today.
It wasn’t until 1926 when Waldo Semon of the B.F. Goodrich Company developed a process to create a more flexible form of the PVC by adding plasticizer additives to the material which revolutionized the PVC usages and allowed for a greater array of PVC uses in the plumbing field and gave way to the introduction of it in the medical field.
The concept of plumbing with PVC originated in Germany. It was thought of as a suitable alternative to metal based piping for drinking water, as it is chemically resistant and imparts no taste or odor in the water. The initial pipe products were of inferior quality to today’s standards but were field tested in central Germany prior to World War II. Many places still have that original PVC piping still in use which is a testament to its longevity.
After World War II, the use of PVC in construction exploded and technological advances for the manufacturing and extruding of PVC pipe were refined into how it is currently manufactured. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that PVC pipe was used in the United States. There are reports of experimental PVC use in things like shoes, golf balls and clothing but it wasn’t until more recent decades before it was prominently used outside of plumbing applications.
Today, more than 7 billion pounds of PVC pipe are sold per year. PVC has also found its own place in all sorts of applications ranging from bottles, flooring, cables, windows, doors, medical supplies, fabric and clothing to furniture and decor. Its relative low cost, longevity and chemical resistance makes it one of the most versatile materials to work with and create lasting equipment and mechanical systems.