History of Composite Materials

Ancient Times

Throughout history, humans have used composite type materials.  One of the earliest uses of composite material was by the ancient Mesopotamians around 3400 B.C., when they glued wood strips at different angles to create plywood.

Egyptians used of Cartonnage, layers of linen or papyrus soaked in plaster, for death masks dates to the 2181-2055 BC.  Archeologists have found that nnatural composite building materials were in used in Egypt and Mesopotamia, since ancient builders and artisans used straw to reinforce mud bricks, pottery, and boats around 1500 BC.

Around 25 BC, The Ten Books on Architecture described concrete and distinguished various types of lime and mortars. Researchers have demonstrated that the cement described in the books is similar, and in some ways superior to the Portand cement used today.


In about 1200 AD, the Mongols invented the first composite bows made from a combination of wood, bamboo, bone, cattle tendons, horns, bamboo and silk bonded with natural pine resin. The bows were small, very powerful, and extremely accurate. Composite Mongolian bows were the most feared weapons on earth until the invention effective firearms in the 14th century.


From the 1870’s through the 1890’s, a revolution was occurring in chemistry. Polymerization allowed new synthetic resins to be transformed from a liquid to solid state in a cross-linked molecular structure.  Early synthetic resins included celluloid, melamine and Bakelite.


In the early 1900’s, plastics such as vinyl, polystyrene, phenolic and polyester were developed. As important as these innovations were, reinforcement was needed to provide the strength and rigidity.

Bakelite, or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, is an early innovative plastic. It is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from an elimination reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It was developed by Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907.

One of the first plastics made from synthetic components, Bakelite was used for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings, and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, and children’s toys. Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1993 by the American Chemical Society in recognition of its significance as the world’s first synthetic plastic. The “retro” appeal of old Bakelite products has made them collectible.


The thirties were perhaps the most important decade for the composites industry.  In 1935, Owens Corning launched the fiber reinforce polymer (FRP) industry by introducing the first glass fiber.  In 1936, unsaturated polyester resins were patented.  Because of their curing properties, they would become the dominant choice for resins in manufacturing today.  In 1938, other higher performance resin systems like epoxies also became available.


World War II brought the FRP industry from research into actual production.  In addition to high strength to weight properties, fiberglass composites were found to be transparent to radio frequencies and were adopted for radar domes and used with other electronic equipment.  In addition, the war effort developed first commercial grade boat hulls.  While they were not deployed in the war effort, the technology was rapidly commercialized after the war.

By 1947 a fully composite body automobile had been made and tested. This car was reasonably successful and led to the development of the 1953 Corvette, which was made using fiberglass preforms impregnated with resin and molded in matched metal dies.  During this period, several methods for molding were developed.  Eventually two methods, compression molding of sheet molding compound (SMC) and bulk molding compound (BMC), would emerge as the dominant forms of molding for the automotive and other industries.


In early 1950’s, manufacturing methods such included pultrusion, vacuum bag molding, and large-scale filament winding were developed. Filament winding became the basis for the large-scale rocket motors that propelled exploration of space in the 1960’s and beyond. Pultrusion is used today in the manufacture of linear components such as ladders and moldings.


In 1961, first carbon fiber was patented, but it was several years before carbon fiber composites were commercially available.  Carbon fibers improved thermoset part stiffness to weight ratios, thereby opening even more applications in aerospace, automotive, sporting goods, and consumer goods.  The marine market was the largest consumer of composite materials in the 1960’s.

1970’s and 1980’s

Fiber development in the late 1960’s led to fibers made from ultra high molecular weight polyethylene in the early 1970’s. Progress in advanced fibers led to breakthroughs in aerospace components, structural and personal armor, sporting equipment, medical devices, and many other applications.  New and improved resins continued to expand composites market, especially into higher temperature ranges and corrosive applications. In the 1970’s, the automotive market surpassed marine as the number one market – a position it retains today.

Mar-Bal, Inc. was formed in 1970 and began their journey of becoming the most integrated Thermoset Composites Solution Provider of today.  Mar-Bal began small and custom molded components for the Electrical (e.g. breakers), Motor Assembly (e.g. housings) and Small Appliance (e.g. waffle makers) industries.

1990’s and 2000’s

By the mid 1990’s, composites hit mainstream manufacturing and construction.  As a cost effective replacement to traditional materials like metal and engineered thermoplastics, Industrial Designers and Engineers began specifying thermoset composites for various components within the Appliance, Construction, Electrical and Transportation industries.

Consumers came into contact with composite materials every day from Handles and Knobs on their gas driven ranges to beautifully stained entry doors of their homes and utilized within electrical infrastructure for the safe and effective delivery of electricity.

Composites began to impact the electrical transmission market with products such as pole line hardware, cross-arms and insulators.

In the mid-2000s, the development of the 787 Dreamliner validated composites for high-strength and rigid applications.

Continued development of finish technology, like PVD and THERMTIAL™, grew the number of applications in automotive, appliances and consumer products industries.  Composites were just beginning to find their way into nanotechnologies.

The Future

Composites research is attracting grants from governments, manufacturers and universities. These investments will find new fibers and resins to create even more applications for composites.  Environmentally friendly resins will incorporate recycled plastics and bio-based polymers as composites the feed the demand for stronger, lighter and environmentally friendly products.

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