Bakelite was the first fibre-reinforced plastic. Leo Baekeland had originally set out to find a replacement for shellac (made from the excretion of lac beetles). Chemists had begun to recognize that many natural resins and fibres were polymers, and Baekeland investigated the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde. He first produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called "Novolak" that never became a market success, then turned to developing a binder for asbestos which, at that time, was moulded with rubber. By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, he found in 1905 he could produce his dreamed-of hard mouldable material (the world's first synthetic plastic): bakelite. He announced his invention at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on February 5, 1909.
The development of fibre-reinforced plastic for commercial use was being extensively researched in the 1930s. In the UK, considerable research was undertaken by pioneers such as Norman de Bruyne. It was particularly of interest to the aviation industry.
Mass production of glass strands was discovered in 1932 when Games Slayter, a researcher at Owens-Illinois accidentally directed a jet of compressed air at a stream of molten glass and produced fibres. A patent for this method of producing glass wool was first applied for in 1933. Owens joined with the Corning company in 1935 and the method was adapted by Owens Corning to produce its patented "fibreglas" (one "s") in 1936. Originally, fibreglas was a glass wool with fibres entrapping a great deal of gas, making it useful as an insulator, especially at high temperatures.
A suitable resin for combining the "fibreglas" with a plastic to produce a composite material, was developed in 1936 by du Pont. The first ancestor of modern polyester resins is Cyanamid's resin of 1942. Peroxide curing systems were used by then. With the combination of fibreglas and resin the gas content of the material was replaced by plastic. This reduced the insulation properties to values typical of the plastic, but now for the first time the composite showed great strength and promise as a structural and building material. Confusingly, many glass fibre composites continued to be called "fibreglass" (as a generic name) and the name was also used for the low-density glass wool product containing gas instead of plastic.
Ray Greene of Owens Corning is credited with producing the first composite boat in 1937, but did not proceed further at the time due to the brittle nature of the plastic used. In 1939 Russia was reported to have constructed a passenger boat of plastic materials, and the United States a fuselage and wings of an aircraft. The first car to have a fibre-glass body was the 1946 Stout Scarab. Only one of this model was built. The Ford prototype of 1941 could have been the first plastic car, but there is some uncertainty around the materials used as it was destroyed shortly afterwards.
The first fibre-reinforced plastic plane was either the Fairchild F-46, first flown on 12 May 1937, or the Californian built Bennett Plastic Plane. A fibreglass fuselage was used on a modified Vultee BT-13A designated the XBT-16 based at Wright Field in late 1942. In 1943 further experiments were undertaken building structural aircraft parts from composite materials resulting in the first plane, a Vultee BT-15, with a GFRP fuselage, designated the XBT-19, being flown in 1944. A significant development in the tooling for GFRP components had been made by Republic Aviation Corporation in 1943.
Carbon fibre production began in the late 1950s and was used, though not widely, in British industry beginning in the early 1960s. Aramid fibres were being produced around this time also, appearing first under the trade name Nomex by DuPont. Today, each of these fibres is used widely in industry for any applications that require plastics with specific strength or elastic qualities. Glass fibres are the most common across all industries, although carbon-fibre and carbon-fibre-aramid composites are widely found in aerospace, automotive and sporting good applications. These three (glass, carbon, and aramid) continue to be the important categories of fibre used in FRP.
Global polymer production on the scale present today began in the mid 20th century, when low material and productions costs, new production technologies and new product categories combined to make polymer production economical. The industry finally matured in the late 1970s when world polymer production surpassed that of steel, making polymers the ubiquitous material that it is today. Fibre-reinforced plastics have been a significant aspect of this industry from the beginning.