Paleolithic humans fire ceramic figures from clay, showing early aptitude in materials processing. 5,000 B.C.: People near modern-day Turkey learn they can not only extract liquid copper from malachite and azurite, but also cast it into various shapes. 3,000 B.C.: Metal workers in modern Syria and Turkey create bronze—one of the first alloys—by adding tin ore to copper ore. Wikimedia Commons

2,500 B.C.

Ancient Egyptians make glass beads, the earliest-known examples of the material. Roughly 2,400 years later, glass is blown into water­tight vessels. 2,000 B.C.: People in Anatolia and Persia begin producing iron from metal ores. 1750: Britain grants the first glue patent for an adhesive derived from fish. Cascades of natural and synthetic glues follow in its sticky footsteps.


English engineer John Smeaton invents modern concrete while looking for a material that would not degrade in water. 1839: Charles Goodyear drops gum on a hot stove, discovering vulcanization and, ultimately, weatherproof rubber. The first product: ruffled shirts for men. 1856: Henry Bessemer patents a process for melting low-carbon iron into a better quality steel that can be mass-produced.


English chemist Alexander Parkes patents the first synthetic plastic, derived from cotton or wood cellulose. Plastic soon replaces ivory in billiard balls. 1934: A team led by Wallace Hume Carothers pulls strands of nylon, the first synthetic fiber, from a test tube. It’s initially used in toothbrush bristles. 1935: Louis Minsk of Eastman Kodak develops a polymer for the first photo-resist, capable of transferring a pattern onto a substrate, enabling the manufacture of semiconductors.


While researching new refrigerants at DuPont, chemist Roy Plunkett discovers one of the samples polymerized. The result: nonstick, heat-resistant Teflon. 1958: At Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby builds the first integrated circuit, or microchip, by combining capacitors, resistors, diodes, and transistors onto a slice of germanium. 1958: Physicist Roger Bacon makes inch-long graphite filaments, spurring him to create the high-performance carbon fibers that reinforce aircraft and missiles.


Electrical engineer Nick Holonyak, Jr., invents the first visible-spectrum light-emitting diode (LED). The red light jumps from calculators to traffic signals and billboards. 1964: DuPont scientist Stephanie Kwolek creates a strong, stiff polymer that leads to bullet-stopping Kevlar. 1970: Researchers at Corning produce glass optical fiber with very low light loss, making telecommunications and the Internet possible.


Chemists develop organic polymers that can conduct electricity, laying the foundation for organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). 1985: Researchers discover extremely stable, 60-atom carbon mole­cules resembling geodesic domes­. They call them buckyballs, after architect R. Buckminster Fuller. 1986: A team at IBM creates a ceramic that conducts electricity at very high temperatures, prompting a race to find even hotter superconductors.


A Japanese scientist finds carbon nanotubes, revered for their superior mechanical properties. 1997: A German botanist describes the self-cleaning properties of lotus leaves, ushering in an era of superhydrophobic materials. 2000: Physicists demonstrate metamaterials that can manipulate electro­magnetic radiation, kicking off the quest for an invisibility cloak.


Scientists use sticky tape to isolate graphene from graphite. The one-atom-thick carbon sheet is the thinnest and strongest material known and an excellent conductor. 2007: By merging the sticking power of geckos and mussels, scientists at Northwestern University develop an adhesive that works in both dry and wet conditions.