The history of plastic industry is filled with great inventions, but the most important of them all came from the Englishman Alexander Parkes (1813 - 1890) who singlehandedly managed to discover fully synthetic plastic and introduce it to the world as one of the most important building materials we ever created. Even though he never managed to become rich with his inventions, his creation of synthetic plastic called Parkesine sparked the minds of countless inventors, who tirelessly worked to perfect new formulas and enable plastic to become one of the most common place building compounds in the world.
Alexander Parkes was born in Birmingham, England, on December 29, 1813 as a son of brass lock manufacturer. Ever since his young age he apprenticed with his father and eventually went to become apprentice at Messenger and Sons (famous brass founders of Birmingham) and George and Henry Elkington. His work with metals and brass foundries enabled him to get a firm grip on several processes of electroplating (applying thin layers of metal on various items), a field in which he did much innovation. He personally developed new process of silver-plating that enabled silver to be coated even on the most delicate objects (such as spider webs and living plants).
After testing interesting properties of natural rubber, Parkes started forming an idea of developing fully synthetic formula for a building material that could be easily molded while it is hot. In 1841 he received first patent for a method of waterproofing fabrics by thin coats of rubber. He continued working with rubber for next 10 years, being granted several more patents by not only combining electroplating and rubberization, but also for working on rubber recycling.
In 1885, Parkes created first man made plastic by dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol and camphor containing ether. Resulting substance was transparent and easily molded when hot, but retained hardness while cold. He showcased his plastic compound called Parkesine it to the public with great success at the 1862 London International Exhibition (central pieces of his presentation were kitchen items made from plastic). Seeing that both public and industry are highly interested for this product, he gathered funds and established Parkesine Company in 1866 with a goal to manufacture plastic items on a large industrial scale. Sadly, this dream ended after only two short years. Main cause of that was inability of Alexander Parkes to alter plastic recipe to be cheaper and easier to make, and also finalized products were prone to cracking and burning.
Seeing that large scale plastic business is failing, he sold Parkesine Company to his business associate Daniel Spill and continued working on his inventions. By the time of his death in 1890, several new plastic products were released to the public, but not a single one managed to attain success that he dreamed of. Daniel Spill’s Xylonite plastic proved to be unsuccessful, and john Wesley Hyatt’s Celluloid was also highly flammable and removed from public use (but it managed to thrive after 1890 as information carrier in filmmaking business).
Alexander Parkes died on 29 June 1890.