British chemist and inventor noted for his development of various industrial processes and materials and for having invented the first plastic.
As a young man, Parkes was apprenticed to a brass founders. He later joined Elkington, Mason & Co. as manager of a casting department. His interest in the newly formed rubber industry in the 1840s and 1850s led to the invention of a new material which he called Parkesine. Parkesine was based on cellulose nitrate and is generally accepted as the first plastic.
Parkes introduced his new material to great public interest at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London and was awarded a prize medal. He established The Parkesine Company at Hackney Wick in London with the aim of marketing Parkesine but the enterprise was not commercially successful. This was partly because the material proved to be highly flammable and partly because Parkes compromised the quality of his goods in an effort to keep the price down. The company was liquidated in 1868.
An energetic man and prolific inventor, Parkes took out more than 80 patents during his life, most of which related to metallurgy; he also fathered 20 children.