9th August 1899. Early Plastics-But Don’t Suck Your Pen!

Plastics offer versatility and flexibility are light-weight, but like most things there s is a negative trade-off as they consume fossil fuel, pollute the environment and leach by ‘polymer migration’: so don’t suck a plastic pen!

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Once called Vulcanite, this term is now reserved for a mineral.

Today in 1899, one of the many unsung heroes who have contributed to technological development in Britain made an application for a British Patent (No.16247).(1)

Thus was Arthur Smith awarded the first patent for the application of phenol formaldehyde (PF), two common organic resins, which can bind all kind of powders. Its proposed use was as an Ebonite substitute in electrical insulation.

However technology, in early plastics, was expanding, to be soon eclipsed by Bakelite, the first truly synthetic plastic, much used in many 1940’s radio cabinets.

Hard plastics go back to the 19th century when Celluloid, a generic name, for Parkesine, was the first artificial polymer developed by another unsung local hero, Alexander Parkes. It was initially used as a substitute for ivory billiard balls.

Looking like ivory or tortoise-shell, Parkesine, was the first Thermoplastic based on nitrocellulose (cellulose treated with nitric acid), with the addition of a solvent.(2)


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(1) The application which is noted below, appeared in a document headed United States Patent Office [no doubt to register his claim in US] and headed Arthur Smith of London England.

‘To all whom it may concern : Be it known that I Arthur Smith analytical chemist, a citizen of England, residing at 90, Wickham Road, Brockley, London in the county of Kent, England have invented a certain new and useful Process of producing Material Suitable for Electrical Insulation or other Purposes (for which I have made application for a British patent dated August 9 1899 No 16247) of which the following is a specification’.

(2) Thermosetting plastic’-a material, which once set, would not soften again when heated


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Alexander Parkes  whose Parkesine was patented in 1856 and exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition.

NOTE: Bakelite was first registered in 1870.

Ref: wikipedia.or.wiki/bakelite

Ref: bakelitemuseum.co.uk

Ref:books.google.co.uk/books re Arthur Smith

Ref: invent.answers.com famous-inventors/the men-who-invented-plastics.

Ref: wikipedia.org.wiki Alexander_Parkes

Ref: Yahoo search image results: Alexander Parkes.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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