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

History of plastic started in the mid-1800 when chemist all round the world started experimenting with rubber.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

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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 early years of 20th century.

Parkesine (1862)

Since the dawn of modern humanity, people of many civilizations used natural rubber as a means of protecting their equipment and items from water and other natural elements, as well as building blocks of many useful articles.

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.

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

Edmund Alexander Parkes

In 1856 he finally managed to combine organic material found in cellulose and other substances to form first man-made plastic Nitrocellulose, wich was later branded as Parkesine.



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

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He 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.

Vintage Tenor Saxophone with original nitrocellulose lacquer.

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.

Even though he did not manage to become rich man from his invention, since 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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