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Alexander ParkesAlexander Parkes

inventor of man-made plastic

Alexander Parkes was born in Birmingham, England, on December 29, 1813. As a young man he was apprenticed to a brass foundry that specialized in the art metal trade. From there he went to work at an electroplating firm, where he developed processes for silver-plating such unusual items as spider webs and living plants. His work in these industries led to his experimenting with solutions of rubber and cellulose nitrate.

Parkes' first patent was granted in 1841, for a method of waterproofing fabrics by coating them with rubber. In 1843 he patented a process for electroplating an object in a solution of phosphorus contained in bisulfide of carbon and then placing it in nitrate of silver. In 1846 he received a patent for a "cold" vulcanization process and another for reclaiming waste rubber. And, in 1850, he patented a process for removing silver from lead during the production of bullion.

In 1855, Parkes patented the first man-made plastic, which he created by dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol and camphor containing ether; the process created a hard solid which could be molded when heated. Parkesine was first exhibited to the public at the 1862 London International Exhibition, where it was received with much fanfare; he earned a prize medal for his exhibit. He established the Parkesine Company to manufacture and market the plastic in 1866, but the company was never financially successful and was liquidated in 1868 -- Parkesine proved too expensive to mass produce, plus it was highly flammable and prone to cracking. Business associate Daniel Spill improved the process and developed Xylonite, but it too proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile American chemist John Wesley Hyatt also developed a man-made plastic, which he called Celluloid, and several patent infringement lawsuits between Parkes, Spill and Hyatt eventually resulted in a U.S. judge declaring Parkes to be the inventor of the first man-made plastic, in 1870.

Despite the lack of financial success with Parkesine, Parkes continued to develop new processes and products related to electroplating, rubber, and plastics, and by the time of his death, which came in London on June 29, 1890, he held over 80 patents.

Daniel Spill
John Wesley Hyatt

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This page was last updated on 05/17/2017.