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So, plastics are made by refining oils. I've been researching the process for a little bit, and while I haven't found a video that really helps me understand exactly what physical devices are needed for each step of the process, most of it seems to involve super-heating crude oil, which I think a medieval society could achieve with a large furnace and several enormous bellows.

(As for why they're doing this, let's say that crude oil was used as fuel for the last 100 years or so, and now the gradual technological development of a pre-industrial society is beginning to advance the process.)

Anyway, at some point, some alchemist playing with crude oil, a massive furnace, brass pipes, a lot of water, and a bunch of sweaty people working the bellows manages to create plastic pellets in, shall we say, 500 to 600 AD? (this time frame may or may not be feasible.) while I imagine that where, exactly, he lived might have an impact on what happens next, the exact specifics aren't super important to me. What I care more about is how this invention changes society.

Obviously, this alchemist won't be mass-producing plastic like we do today, but If he writes down the process and other alchemists pick it up, plastic might be a relatively common material in another century or so. I imagine the plastic-makers could use clay molds and hot furnaces to melt plastic into specific shapes. (Since the first alchemist invented plastic somewhere in 500-600 AD, this would be in 600-700 AD).


Moving on to the specific questions...

What is the earliest real-life time period in which a medieval society could realistically build a furnace hot enough to convert crude oil into ethylene, and to convert ethylene into plastic?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd advise you to split this question in two. There's one question in here about the earliest feasible time for plastic production, and another for what the effects of early plastic would be on society. Especially the latter one is liable to be closed for being too broad on its own (as most "What effects would X have on society?" questions are closed). So I think you should focus on the production process, not the end result. Ask that separately, later - using answers about the timescale as valuable input. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ (1) Plastic is not made by refining petroleum. Refining petroleum produces the feedstocks (raw materials) from which plastic is made. (2) Some plastics, such as galalith and bakelite are relatively easy to make, and could have conceivably be produced in small quantities in the Early Modern period (but certainly not earlier). (3) Refining petroleum is a non-trivial process. No, heating it won't do you much good. (4) They had plastics in the Middle Ages, namely horn and leather. They were used for a large variety of purposes. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ The Romans made plastic (though they didn't know it and didn't call it that). Look up what happens when linseed or castor oils (carriers for paint since ancient times) dry... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on what you're willing to consider as plastic, some were made. Latex was made in that timeframe (though not vulcanized, it might have been possible then for that to have occurred), and you have other natural plastics like lacquer/lac produced in Asia. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ Hardened Resin Lacquers, aka "Urushi" or "China Lacquers" are pretty much Plastics and have been around since 9000 years! $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 19:03

5 Answers 5

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What's "plastic?"

Plastic is a word that originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.” It only recently became a name for a category of materials called polymers. The word polymer means “of many parts,” and polymers are made of long chains of molecules. Polymers abound in nature. Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is a very common natural polymer.

Over the last century and a half humans have learned how to make synthetic polymers, sometimes using natural substances like cellulose, but more often using the plentiful carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. (Source)

When you say plastic, I assume what you really mean is manufactured polymers. I'm going to intentionally separate that from synthetic polymers, which would be difficult to rationalize and, I suspect, would be unnecessary. To continue...

Natural polymers exist and so, using them, not only is it entirely possible for "plastic" to be available to medieval alchemists — they had them.

There are two types of polymers: synthetic and natural. Synthetic polymers are derived from petroleum oil, and made by scientists and engineers. Examples of synthetic polymers include nylon, polyethylene, polyester, Teflon, and epoxy. Natural polymers occur in nature and can be extracted. They are often water-based. Examples of naturally occurring polymers are silk, wool, DNA, cellulose and proteins. (Source)

From that same source we learn that pectin and, more importantly, rubber, are also natural polymers that could have been available to medieval peoples (with a little help of good ocean-going ships).

It's worth pointing out a bit of "reality" to scope the answer

  • All technology stands atop a pyramid of knowledge and experience. What you're basically asking us to do is indicate just how much that top of that pyramid can be pulled "back in time." The honest reality is, "not very much" and the further you want it pulled back the less realistic it will be. However, we should be looking for suspension of disbelief, something just "real enough" that it lets you tell a cool story.1 This is important, because of you want manufactured polymers in the medieval era you will be required to ignore how history actually played out and why.

  • 99.99% of all the technology we enjoy today was invented in the last 150 years. You're trying to pull an awful lot against, shall we say, the inertia of innovation. I'm just pointing out that you'll need to be prepared to handwave or ignore things to rationalize what you want. And the further back you want to pull it, the more you'll have to handwave or ignore.

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled program

Here's how the first "plastic" came to be:

It was in 1862 that Alexander Parkes introduced the world’s first-ever man-made plastic, at the London International Exhibition. “Parkesine,” as it was called, was marketed as an alternative to ivory and horn that Parks discovered while trying to develop a synthetic substitute for shellac for waterproofing.

Though the product was not a commercial success, Parkesine represented an important first step in the development of man-made plastic. The material didn’t start to truly show its potential value and diversity of applications until John Wesley Hyatt in Albany, New York discovered a way to manufacture an improved version of Parkesine, most commonly known as celluloid. (Source)

And to expand a little...

The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory. (Source)

This is a very important stopping point. If Parkesine or celluloid solve your problem, you're in like Flynt.2 The reason is that, being naturally derived, the rationalization for discovering these processes is a whole lot simpler than rationalizing synthetic polymers.

Synthetic polymers didn't really come to be anything like what we know plastics to be today until just before World War II with the development of Nylon (a synthetic silk). I want you to think about all the chemistry that took place between 1862 and 1935. That encompasses the entire Industrial Revolution and it's no small thing to take just a chunk of it out and figure out how to make just that chunk happen 1400 years earlier. Remember what I said about that pyramid.

Consequently, I think I'm going to skip figuring out how to create synthetic plastics, which means that technically I didn't answer your question because I'm not explaining how early medieval Europe could discover and chemically manipulate crude oil more than a millennium before it actually happened. I think that the natural substances will get you to where you want to go (cursing medieval Europe with manufactured polymers long before they were ready...).

I'm also going to completely ignore your second, third, and fourth questions. Please remember that asking more than one question is a reason to vote to close a question (VTC:Needs more focus). You should delete your last paragraph and figure out how to ask it as a single question in a new post. Methinks you'll find there are a lot of potential uses for manufactured polymers in medieval Europe — especially after you've settled on what kind of plastic you'll really have.


1If you've ever watched "The Murdoch Mysteries" you'll know exactly what I mean. One of the many premises of the show is the "what if?" component of having main character William Murdoch involved with many of the notable inventions and discoveries of the time period. Oh, they take outrageous license with history — but who honking cares? It's fun to see them interweave those discoveries into an alternate history where Murdoch seems to be the magnet for them all. What's the point of this footnote? To remind you to not take being "as close to real life" very seriously. History and science are tools for the writer and worldbuilder — not limitations.

2"In like Flynt" is a lovely phrase suggesting a flawless and seemingly simple insertion into a complex situation or difficult location. It comes from the movie In Like Flynt (1967) staring the incomparable James Coburn. Most kids nowadays would probably burn the film for its 60's take on male-female relationships (not unlike tearing down statues...), but if you're willing to suck it up and look past, well, the past, you'll have a lot of fun watching the movie.

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Easy peasy (slightly cheaty). All they need is a cow, a supply of lemons or white vinegar if you're somewhere cold, and a fire.

A cool experiment to do with kids is to make plastic from milk; you just need to heat milk with acid until the casein turns into polymers, then dry it.

This is a chemistry experiment working with polymers. Polymers are molecules that have formed a regular chain structure. Milk contains molecules of a protein called Casein. During this reaction between warm milk and acid the casein molecules unfold and form long chains called a polymer. The polymer can be molded and shaped which makes it a plastic. In this case it’s called casein plastic or milk plastic because of the type of molecules that created the plastic.

https://www.steampoweredfamily.com/activities/make-plastic-from-milk/

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Any alchemist could have made nitrocellulose, one form of which is celluloid -- the oldest commercial plastic -- if only they'd known how. In the real world, this was discovered in the 19th century, but all the necessary materials (nitric and sulfuric acids, and cellulose, in the form of cotton or linen) were available by the 13th century (perhaps earlier).

Celluloid is versatile stuff -- in thin sheets, it can be made transparent, in heavier moldings it's naturally ivory-colored but can be dyed (with dyes that also weren't available until the mid-19th century). Its only major drawback is that it's flammable, but if made correctly, not much more so than lightweight paper.

Collodion is made the same way, but has a slightly higher level of nitration; it's soluble in solvents the alchemists knew (ether and ethanol) and can be used as a coating or adhesive.

The third form is guncotton; fully nitrated, it's almost as flammable as gunpowder and produces much more gas, as well as accelerating combustion more with pressure, which makes it a more efficient propellant (but requires much stronger gun barrels. With a little coaxing, it can also be convinced to detonate.

All three of these are made from just the three simple ingredients: nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and cotton or linen.

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The only synthetic plastic that could be made in the medieval period using only the technology available at the time is galalith (also known as erinoid, aladdinite, casolith, and lactoloid).

Galalith can be made using only skim milk, vinegar, and dye, all of which were available during the medieval period.

This link describes how galalith can be made using only milk, vinegar, dye, and a low temperature flame.

This previous Worldbuilding Stack Exchange question states what dyes were available to a medieval peasant. Peat and ammonia could create an orange color, woad creates blue, and lichens create green.

However, there are significant limitations to using galalith. Galalith can only be made into small button-like shapes, not full-sized figurines. It is also porous, fragile, and thermosetting (meaning that it cannot be melted and reshaped). In addition, the use of milk and vinegar (prized cooking ingredients at the time) for materials would have easily been seen as wasteful.

Here is what galalith buttons look like:

Small white and round galalith buttons on a green cloth.

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Plastic: Noun.
a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.

Here are some plastics that are so easy to make, that people have been making them since before written history:

CHEESE
No really.. Consider the specifications: It is a manufactured product.
Can be moulded.
Can set into forms of various hardness.
Can even be heated to release its form (melt), and re-harden upon cooling.
Cheese IS A PLASTIC!
...and has been made for the last 3200 years, at least. Tech level needed: Stone age, early domesticated animals nomadic at most.

Shellac:
A bit closer to what you would admit is a plastic. You get it by scraping the sex sweat of female Lac bugs in the trees of Thailand.
This material is repeatedly reshapable, can harden to a hard, glossy material, can be re-softened and reshaped by the addition of alcohol. Can be made a varnish-like paint. You can even make a phonograph record using the stuff! ...and has been in use for verified more than 3000 years already Tech level needed: Chimpanzee(i.e. pre-verbal hominid). Or Stone age, of you want the alcohol to reshape it.

There are several other candidates, but these are the easiest.

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