Parkesine / Nitrocellulose: first man-made plastic (1856)

The history of plastic began in the mid-1800s when chemists around the world began experimenting with rubber.

Newark, New Jersey, industrial production complex of the Celluloid Company (c. 1890)

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When does plastic became fully synthetic?

Striving to eliminate natural latex so that plastic could be a fully synthetic product, soon the first plastic compounds appeared: only after decades of perfection finally entered mass production in the early years of the 20th century.

Celluloid doll

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The invention of Nitrocellulose

Since the dawn of modern humanity, many civilizations have used natural rubber to protect their equipment and items from water or other natural elements. Natural rubber was used for building blocks of many useful articles as well.

This natural rubber (mixture of organic compounds such as latex and water) was gathered from rubber-producing plants, and therefore its production was greatly limited by natural resources.

File:Edmund Alexander Parkes. Photograph by Barraud. Wellcome V0026970.jpg

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However, Alexander Parkes (1813 – 1890), a metallurgist and inventor from England, was the first man who managed to produce plastic in a laboratory. He spent his entire life working on various techniques of rubberizing items.

Nitrocellulose film on a light box, showing deterioration

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Parkesine (1862)

In 1856, he finally managed to combine the organic material found in cellulose and other substances to form the first artificial plastic Nitrocellulose, later named Parkesine.

Nitrocellulose is obtained by treating cellulose with a mixture of sulfuric and nitric acids. This changes the hydroxyl groups (–OH) in the cellulose into nitro groups (–NO3).

Plastic characteristics

Alexander Parkes immediately saw that plastic has much better abilities than rubber:

  • it could be industrially produced in large quantities,
  • easily molded when hot,
  • sturdy and durable when cooled.

Nitrocellulose as paint
Vintage Tenor Saxophone nitrocellulose lacquer- 1939 -Selmer Balanced Action Tenor Saxophone

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Flaming celluloid pattern on an accordion.

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In the early twentieth century, in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution, Nitrocellulose was found to make an excellent film and paint. Nitrocellulose lacquer was used as a finish on guitars and saxophones and is still used in some current applications.

Alexander Parkes did not manage to become a rich man from his invention.  His large-scale manufacturing business failed after few years of work, mostly due to the high price and imperfect recipe, his exploits served managed to introduce plastic to the general population and scientists in both Europe and North America.

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