Tag Archives: Parkesine

Alexander Parkes: Living in a material world

Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technology and Engineering, blogs on creating a new display to explore the life and legacy of Alexander Parkes.

As an Assistant Curator, I get the opportunity to work with thousands of objects – from early supercomputers to model steam engines – to bring their stories to life. About eight months ago I started working on a small display celebrating an anniversary in science, technology, engineering or medicine.

Representing the scale of discovery, invention or the life of an important figure in science in a 2 x 3 meter showcase was going to be a challenge. Not deterred I thought this case was the perfect size to celebrate the life and work of the often forgotten 19th century inventor Alexander Parkes.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848. Credit: SSPL

Parkes was born 200 years ago last month (read more about him here) and contributed to a vast range of metallurgical and material developments. Awarded a whopping 80 patents, Parkes’ work ranged from electroplating works of art to developing the first semi-synthetic plastic, Parkesine.

Two gilt vases by Alexander Parkes, 19th century.

Gilt vases by Alexander Parkes. Made by Elkington & Co. Credit: SSPL

We wanted to show both sides of Parkes, one as Parkes experimenting in his laboratory, and the other as Parkes the talented craftsman. All the objects in the display show the interplay between these skills. The most eye catching and shiny object on display is an electroplated vase that Parkes made early in his career while working at Elkington and Co. in Birmingham. Next to that are bars of copper produced during the Parkes’ process, a method of extracting valuable metal from lead.

While working on the project I found Parkes’ legacy hiding around every corner, or at least painted on the walls.

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Overexcited Assistant Curator. Image: Rachel Boon

Bread Collective and the community of Hackney Wick worked together on The Walls Have Ears project to paint a mural celebrating the industrial history of the area. Why, you may ask is Parkesine, a Birmingham inventor’s miracle material, immortalised on a wall between wasteland and an Overground station? The answer is the Parkesine Company Ltd, opened in Hackney Wick in 1866 to commercialise Parkesine.

During the 19th century, desirable materials such as ivory, ebony and tortoiseshell became increasingly rare and expensive. A sustainable replica was required to meet the demand. Not only could Parkesine imitate expensive materials it also changed the face of consumerism and mass-produced goods.

Cheap to produce but moulded into the finery of the day – imitation ivory mirrors or tortoiseshell jewellery – Parkesine opened the door to people from all walks of life to be the proud owners of fancy-looking goods.  Analogous to today’s high street stores imitating designer clothes and accessories. We may proudly walk around in Pri-marni now, but Parkes was changing social aspirations over 150 years ago.

Despite Parkes’ enthusiasm and his ability to raise £100,000 (worth £10 million today) from the great industrialists of the time, the factory filed for bankruptcy after two years. Parkes’ desire to compete against natural rubbers and keep his investors happy affected the quality of the goods produced. There are records of combs deforming after a few weeks and other items exploding!

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

Objects made from Parkesine 1855-1891. Image: SSPL

The final group of 14 objects on display reflect the range of objects Parkes made, from jewellery to cutlery, along with the enchanting variety of coloured pigments used.

One of my favourite objects is a toothed wheel made out of black Parkesine. If used, this small item was more likely to set your factory alight than run machinery! Parkesine is a combination of organic matter – cotton fibre – mixed with chemical nitrates, vegetable oils, camphor and alcohol.  When nitrates get hot they have a tendency to explode, so using Parkesine for anything that creates friction is asking for trouble.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860.

Toothed gear wheel of black Parkesine, made by Alexander Parkes, c. 1860. Credit: SSPL

Lucky, the Science Museum also looks after the notebooks of Alexander Parkes in our Archives at Wroughton. Parkes’ scribbles in these notebooks shows more than just his dedication to rigorous experimentation. Imbedded between the pages listing chemical combinations are delicate sketches of British landscapes. This material, along with the objects in store was integral for the 3D and 2D designers without whom this case would not look so captivating.

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Image: SSPL

Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s. Credit: SSPL

Producing a display like this is a team effort, with many departments helping to turn hours spent researching and rummaging through stores into a display for visitors. The workshops team were up at the crack of dawn to build and install the display and the conservation team were involved from the start to ensure the objects would be safely displayed. Finally, after months of writing and rewriting text, the ribbon was cut and my first showcase was opened.

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man showcase. Source: Rachel Boon

Alexander Parkes – Materials Man and Polymath

Sue Mossman explores the life of Alexander Parks, inventor of early plastics, on his 200th birthday.

Alexander Parkes was born in Birmingham on 29th December 1813. In his early career he described himself as an artist, and only later a chemist. He might also have described himself as a metallurgist.

A decorative metalworker by training, Parkes was to turn his sharp intelligence towards a variety of old and new materials in the burgeoning industrial world of mid-19th-century Britain. His life was an active one – he was granted over 66 patents. He also found time to father 17 children with two wives, his second wife being the friend of his eldest daughter.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, 1848.

Parkes had a varied and successful career in metallurgy, working on a number of processes, including the desilverising of lead – known as the Parkes process. While employed at Elkington, Mason and Company in Birmingham, he developed a process for electroplating works of art and later fragile natural objects. The epitome of this technique was a silver-plated spider’s web presented to Prince Albert.

Parkes is perhaps best known for the eponymous Parkesine – the first form of celluloid – an early semi-synthetic plastic based on gun cotton. He took out his first related patent in 1855. Parkes later won a bronze medal for excellence of product in the International Exhibition of 1862 and later a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1867.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

Objects made from Parkesine, c 1860.

Henry Bessemer, of steel production fame, was a colleague of Parkes. Indeed Bessemer topped the list of the investors in the Parkesine Company set up in 1866, although the company failed in 1868 – probably because of issues associated with quality and flammability. Parkes, though a prolific inventor, was no businessman. We might see him as a victim of an agile but perhaps too busy mind, and of a strong moral conscience. When he developed a potentially lucrative explosive powder, he refused to sell it to the British, French or Russian governments.

In a letter written on 7 March 1881, Parkes rather plaintively remarked that: ‘In answer to the American Inquiry “Who Invented Celluloid” … I do wish the World to know who the inventor really was, for it is a poor reward after all I have done to be denied the merit of the invention.’

Celluloid, the direct descendant of Parkesine, became a great commercial success, used to make a range of decorative goods, often imitating the more expensive ivory, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Perhaps its most enduring legacy was its application in cinematic film. Parkes had foreseen the use of Parkesine film as a replacement for glass photographic negatives as early as 1856. Even he would have been amazed by the development of celluloid film and the birth of the Hollywood film industry.

Parkesine is a fragile material, subject to degradation by light, so is seldom put on display. But from December 2013 to mid 2014 a selection of objects made from this beautiful and rare semi-synthetic plastic can be seen at the Science Museum, together with other items associated with the life and works of Alexander Parkes.