When Batman and his ward, Robin, the boy wonder, were called to fight crime on the streets of Gotham City there were no Google Maps to turn to. The crime-fighting duo first hit the television screens in January 1966, and they navigated with reference to the Giant Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City. It was exactly what the label said: a giant illuminated map, made from Lucite and installed within the Batcave, although, as eagle-eyed viewers pointed out, it didn't depict the fictional Gotham City but was actually a map of the real St Louis, Missouri, seen in reverse.
This month's design landmark isn't just Batman's illuminated map but the plastic from which it was made: acrylic sheet, the versatile material that came to replace glass in applications as varied as aircraft cockpits and retail displays.
It's not uncommon for brand names to take on a generic usage: Biro for “ballpoint pen”, Hoover for “vacuum cleaner”, Google for “search engine” or Nylon for “polyamide”. What makes acrylic special is the sheer number of brand names that worked their way into common usage: Lucite, Perspex, Plexiglas, Acrylite.
Acrylic, properly known as poly(methyl methacrylate) or PMMA, was first discovered by the German chemist Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig in 1877, decades before its first commercial application. Another German chemist, Otto Röhm, took out a trademark for Plexiglas in 1933. But it took until 1936 before acrylic safety glass was manufactured on an industrial scale, by ICI in the UK, under the Perspex brand name.
The brand name that Batman and Robin favoured, Lucite, was registered by DuPont in 1937. DuPont would later develop acrylic, in fibre form, under the Orlon brand name. Once commercialised, in the 1950s, acrylic fibre would become commonplace in garments and upholstery. Meanwhile the Lucite brand name lives on in the hands of Lucite International, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, the Japanese industrial group, which manufactures the material to this day (under both Lucite and Perspex brands).