Polymers are a large class of materials consisting of many small molecules (called monomers) that can be linked together to form long chains, thus they are known as macromolecules. The picture at the top of the page is a short section of such a chain. A typical polymer may include tens of thousands of monomers. Because of their large size, polymers are classified as macromolecules.
Humans have taken advantage of the versitility of polymers for centuries in the form of oils, tars, resins, and gums. However, it was not until the industrial revolution that the modern polymer industry began to develop. In the late 1830s, Charles Goodyear succeeded in producing a useful form of natural rubber through a process known as "vulcanization." Some 40 years later, Celluloid (a hard plastic formed from nitrocellulose) was successfully commercialized. Despite these advances, progress in polymer science was slow until the 1930s, when materials such as vinyl, neoprene, polystyrene, and nylon were developed. The introduction of these revolutionary materials began an explosion in polymer research that is still going on today.
Unmatched in the diversity of their properties, polymers such as cotton, wool, rubber, Teflon(tm), and all plastics are used in nearly every industry. Natural and synthetic polymers can be produced with a wide range of stiffness, strength, heat resistance, density, and even price. With continued research into the science and applications of polymers, they are playing an ever increasing role in society. The following sections provide an introduction to the science of macromolecules.