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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

story:New science, new materials, new power

scene:New materials: Plastics

New materials: Plastics
The 'second industrial revolution' marked the start of the age of plastics. The history of most other materials is lost to antiquity but the development of plastics took place in modern times so the contributions and innovations of key people are recognised.
Plastics can be defined in a number of ways but a popular and commonly used definition is: a material that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure and/or heat.
Chemically, plastics are polymers - substances composed of long chains of repeating molecules (monomers) made up predominantly of carbon and hydrogen atoms which, under the right conditions, join up into chain structures.
While early plastic pioneers did not understand the structure of plastics, some realised the enormous technical, social and economic importance of their invention.
Images with this text:
Lower part of a costume, festooned with cellophane, worn by Mrs A G McCorquodale (later Dame Barbara Cartland, 1901-2000) at a Santa Claus ball, December 1929.
Parkesine
Parkesine is generally accepted as the first plastic. It was invented by an energetic English scientist called Alexander Parkes.
Parkesine was a semi-synthetic substance based on cellulose, a natural substance obtained from sources such as cotton flock and wood fibres.
Parkes discovered that cellulose nitrate could be mixed with plasticisers and solvents to produce a mouldable substance.
He unveiled his invention, to great public interest, at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. His display included combs, hair slides, billiard balls and carved plaques.
Parkes went on to produce a wide range of Parkesine objects from fishing-rod spools to a miniature, intricately carved head of Christ, crowned with thorns, in imitation amber. But despite having patented an important innovation, Parkes failed to achieve commercial success, partly because the material was extremely flammable.
Images with this text:
Buttons, hair slides and ornamental objects made from Parkesine.
Alexander Parkes (1813-1890), the inventor of Parkesine, the first plastic.
A ball, hair ornaments, buttons and other objects. Alexander Parkes produced a wide range of objects made from Parkesine.
Celluloid
John Wesley Haytt worked in parallel to Alexander Parkes but in the United States. He experimented with cellulose nitrate in a bid to find a cheap substitute for ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls.
Like Parkes, Hyatt found that the substance was dangerously flammable. As he later wrote of his billiard balls: 'occasionally the violent contact of the balls would produce a mild explosion like a percussion guncap. We had a letter from a billiard saloon proprietor in Colorado, mentioning this fact and saying that he did not care so much about it but that instantly every man in the room pulled a gun.'
The breakthrough came in 1870 when Hyatt discovered that camphor made an excellent plasticiser for cellulose nitrate, producing a more stable and usable product. This he christened celluloid and it brought him great commercial success. Celluloid, also a semi-synthetic substance, was used to make decorative items such as dressing table sets, bags and low-cost, wipe-clean collars and cuffs.
Images with this text:
A pair of dice made in imitation ivory celluloid.
Celluloid handbag, with moulded design and leather strap, 1920s.
Advertisement for celluloid waterproof collars, cuffs and shirt bosoms. For 'all who study convenience, neatness and economy.'
Bakelite
The first completely synthetic plastic was produced in 1907 by a New York chemist called Leo Baekeland. He created a liquid resin, which rapidly hardened in the shape of the container in which it was being heated. He called it Bakelite.
Bakelite had impressive qualities. Unlike celluloid-based substances it could be melted down innumerable times and reformed.
It would not burn, boil, melt, or dissolve in any commonly available acid or solvent. It was heat resistant, chemically stable and shatterproof. It would neither crack, fade, crease, nor discolour from exposure to sunlight, dampness or sea salt - once firmly set, it would retain its shape and form under any circumstances.
Bakelite was widely used to make auto parts and for domestic purposes; it proved to be more effective as an electrical insulator than any other material available. It was also a key ingredient in many weapons used by the United States in the Second World War.
Images with this text:
The reactor vessel 'old faithful'. The equipment in which Baekeland produced his first resins.
Leo Baekeland (1863-1944), the inventor of Bakelite.
Mouldings made from Bakelite.
Artificial silk
In 1883 Sir Joseph Swan, an English scientist, developed a fine fibre using cellulose nitrate. His wife Hannah Swan produced fabrics by crocheting these fibres; she called them 'artificial silk'.
It was a French chemist, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, who achieved the first commercial scale production of artificial silk. His product caused a sensation at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. Although commercially successful at first, sales slowed down when the public realised that the material was very flammable. A contemporary joke suggested that the ideal present for a mother-in-law was a box of matches and a dress of Chardonnet silk.
In 1894 three British inventors, Cross, Bevan and Beadle, patented a safe method of making artificial silk. They called their product viscose although the name rayon was adopted in the United States in the 1920s.
Viscose products had an enormous impact. The greatest early success was in women's hosiery - artificial silk brought silk stockings within reach of the mass market.
Images with this text:
Skeins of artificial silk in different colours.
Viscose rayon, c.1880s.
Samples of artificial silk, c.1883.
Early sample of woven viscose fabric.
Cellophane
Cellophane was invented by Dr. Jacques E. Brandenberger, a Swiss textile engineer. Legend has it that in 1900 Brandenberger was seated at a restaurant when another customer spilt wine on the tablecloth. As a waiter removed the cloth and replaced it with a clean one, Brandenberger decided that he would invent a clear flexible film that could be applied to cloth to make it waterproof.
He conducted research with different materials and eventually applied liquid viscose (later known as rayon) to cloth. The cloth became too stiff and brittle. The experiment had failed but Brandenberger noted that the coating peeled off in a transparent film that might have other applications.
By 1908 he had developed a machine that could produce transparent viscose sheets. He marketed his product as Cellophane.
Cellophane became available to the public in 1919. In 1927 the addition of a waterproof lacquer coating meant that it could be used to package food.
Images with this text:
Two illustrations from Brandenberger's complete specification. Titled 'Improvements in and relating to the Treatment and Application of Cellulosic film', 18 November 1908. Accepted 23 September 1909.
December 1929. Mrs A G McCorquodale (later Dame Barbara Cartland, 1901-2000) in a costume festooned with cellophane at a Santa Claus Ball.

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