Setting out to make an insulator, he invented the first true plastic and transformed the world

In the opening scene of The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (played by a young Dustin Hoffman) is awkwardly working an affluent Southern California crowd at a graduation party arranged for him by his parents when a family friend offers one of the century's most famous pieces of cinematic advice: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics."

Millions of moviegoers winced and smiled. The scene neatly captured their own late-'60s ambivalence toward the ever more synthetic landscape of their times. They loved their cheap, easy-to-clean Formica countertops, but envied--and longed for--the authentic touch and timelessness of...

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