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.

image source: https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/alexander-parkes-materials-man-and-polymath/

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.

The invention of Nitrocellulose

Since the dawn of modern humanity, many civilizations 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.

Edmund Alexander Parkes

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.

Parkesine (1862)

In 1856, he finally managed to combine organic material found in cellulose and other substances to form the first man-made plastic Nitrocellulose, which 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).

image source: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co9923/alexander-parkes-1813-1890-photograph-portrait

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 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.

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.

image source: https://www.ebay.com/itm/293163701473

info source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrocellulose