The first silicone elastomers were developed in the search for better insulating materials for electric motors and generators. Resin-impregnated glass fibers were the state-of-the-art materials at the time. The glass was very heat resistant, but the phenolic resins would not withstand the higher temperatures that were being encountered in new smaller electric motors. Chemists at Corning Glass and General Electric were investigating heat-resistant materials for use as resinous binders when they synthesized the first silicone polymers, demonstrated that they worked well and found a route to produce it commercially.
The term “silicone” is actually a misnomer. The suffix -one is used by chemists to denote a substance with a double-bonded atom of oxygen in its backbone. When first discovered, silicone was erroneously believed to have oxygen atoms bonded in this way. In fact, silicone is an inorganic polymer, and the technically correct term for the various silicone rubbers is polysiloxanes or polydimethylsiloxanes.
Corning Glass in a joint venture with Dow Chemical formed Dow Corning in 1943 to produce this new class of materials. As the unique properties of the new silicone products were studied in more detail, their potential for broader usage was envisioned, and GE opened its own plant to produce silicones in 1947 (now Momentive Performance Materials). Wacker Chemie also started production of silicones in Europe in 1947. The Japanese company Shin-Etsu Chemical began mass production of silicone in 1953. The companies mentioned above are now still the main competitors in the oligopoly that comprises the silicone industry.