July 6, 2022

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of Silicone and How It Transformed Our Daily Lives

6 min read
microchip silicone

Silicone has been in use for so long that we can take its existence for granted. However, something we can find in almost every part of our lives has a history of its own. What is the history of silicone?

Where Does Silicone Come From?

The most elemental form of silicone is found in silicon, which is part of the periodic table of elements. When it is combined with oxygen, it becomes silica. You might know silica in two ways. The first is in its quartz form, which is its most common crystallized form. The second is in the form of silica gel you find in new bags or shoes. Silica gel is a desiccant, which means it absorbs moisture from the air around it and keeps the atmosphere dry. 

“Silicon” should also be very familiar to you, probably and rightly because of Silicon Valley in California. Almost every microchip is composed of materials interconnected over silicon wafers. Silicon in particular conducts electricity, so it serves as a kind of switchboard for all the “messages” being sent in a single device. 

What does this have to do with rubberized silicone and all the other uses that humanity has found for this element?

Who Discovered Silicone?

In 1823, a Swedish chemist called Jöns Jackob Berzelius isolated silicon on its own, and heated silicon in chlorine to get silicon tetrachloride, one of the materials used to make silicone. At the time, Berzelius was mainly interested in establishing the atomic weight of each element. Because of this, he was focused on isolating specific elements, rather than finding any practical use for them. 

In 1854, a French chemist named Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville discovered crystalline silicon, one of the main components of the microchips we use today. Deville was more interested in practical uses for the elements than Berzelius was, and even developed lighter-weight armor options for Napoleon III’s soldiers. Despite this, it would take over 70 years for silicon to become useful in daily life. 

The catalyst for silicone becoming popularized was the rise of plastics as a substitute for many materials, beginning in 1869. John Wesley Hyatt found that plastic, easily moldable and easy to create, made a good substitute for ivory (made of elephant tusks) in the construction of billiard balls. Creating a new and malleable material caught the imagination, and proved to be much cheaper than hunting for the source. Turning to plastic also appeased those who felt like man was tapping too many natural resources. 

In 1930, an English chemist called James Franklin Hyde found a use for commercial silicone. He was hired by a group called Corning Glass to figure out how plastic and glass could somehow be merged, given how plastics in general were already taking over most industries. Hyde successfully merged silica, the base material for glass, and carbon, a key component of plastic, to create a strong but clear kind of glass. The silicon resins he and his team came up with could also be used as grease, insulation, or lubricant, depending on the composition.

However, these compounds were not called “silicone” until the coining of the term by Hyde’s countryman, Frederich Stanley Kipping. Kipping was more into analytical rather than practical chemistry. He had observed and taken note of Hyde’s creations and research, and in fact coined the term “silicones” in a kind of mockery, calling them “sticky messes.” He was instrumental to the naming of the silicone elastomer, but ironically had nothing to do with its advancement as a practical material.

Hyde and his research team continued to develop the compositions until in 1942, during the Second World War, they had a strong, stable, conductive material that could be used even for high-powered machines such as planes. The world war greatly and rapidly expanded the demand for plastics and other materials that could be manufactured rather than gathered. The need for war materials, especially in preparing to launch the invasion in Europe, created a demand that Hyde and his team were in a good position to meet.

How Was Silicone Used After the World War?

Silly Putty

Interestingly enough, Kipping’s opinion of silicone as a “sticky mess” with no practical use came true, somewhat, with the invention of Silly Putty in 1949. James Wright, a Scottish-born General Electrics engineer, was looking for an even cheaper version of the synthetic rubber that was greatly in demand. He put together boric acid with silicone oil and made a stretchy, bouncy putty that could easily mold even to intricate patterns and maintain the shape. It was not of great use to the war, however. Instead, it became something of a novelty at cocktail parties.

Peter Hodgson was an advertising and marketing executive who had founded an ad agency after World War II. At the time he discovered what would become Silly Putty, he was simply cataloguing toys for a local toy store. As he watched people at parties play with the material, Hodgson realized that something that could hold a busy grown person’s attention for 15 minutes or more at a time was perfect as a toy. He ordered a batch from General Electrics and sold them in 1-ounce packages.

Leather Treatment

In 1950, Sylflex was developed to treat leather for waterproofing. It was patented by Dow Corning, the same group that Hyde previously worked for. Under the patent, the company could also use it to make other materials water-resistant, such as glass, ceramic, wood, and even cloth. 

Silicone even made it to the moon as footwear, on the sole of Neil Armstrong’s feet. Its use had developed to the point of space travel.

One thing that made silicone stand out so clearly was its usefulness for everyday materials. There is little to no allergic reaction to the material, even when handled or worn for long periods of time. 

Post-Its

Supposedly, the first adhesive tapes used for Post-It notes were made of a silicone base. Post-It users are even encouraged not to stick the notes to silicone because they do not work well together. 

Microchips and Microprocessors

Silicone has two qualities that make it the perfect material for machines that send multiple signals in one device, such as computers and smartphones, and even microwaves and digital washing machines. First, silicone conducts electricity. Signals can be easily transmitted using the material itself. Second, silicone is heat resistant.

With the amount of energy being used to send signals through the microchip, overheating is a probability. Silicone reduces that possibility and, as technology becomes more intricate, allows for the creation of faster signals to be transmitted without either microchip or device overheating. 

More Modern Uses

Silicone has made itself useful to practically every industry. This includes the cosmetics industry, where silicone can be found even in lipsticks to make them longer-lasting and water-resistant. It is also found in cosmetic augmentation procedures, to name other uses. 

One of the most recent industry wins for silicone, however, is in the cooking and baking industry. The stability of silicone means it can be heated to baking temperatures without melting, and can then be frozen without cracking or shattering. Silicone freezer trays that also double as food containers or heating containers have become popular. Because it is water-resistant, even batter and sauces don’t stick to the material except in extreme circumstances. Silicon itself as an element is the second most common element on earth besides oxygen, people have practically no allergic reactions to the material, any more than they would react to oxygen. 

What Should We Remember About Silicone?

Silicone is a good example of how even a populous element can only find its use when technology advances enough to refine it. It also shows how the world is in a constant state of flux between natural or organic ingredients and synthetic solutions to persistent problems. Silicone presents an option that is both naturally occurring and uniquely refined in a way that is much less damaging to the environment. 

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