Friday 7 February 2014

Men fo Yore: Alexander Parkes

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Alexander Parkes

Alexander Parkes was born in Birmingham, England, on December 29, 1813. As a young man he was apprenticed to a brass foundry that specialized in the art metal trade. From there he went to work at an electroplating firm, where he developed processes for silver-plating such unusual items as spider webs and living plants. His work in these industries led to his experimenting with solutions of rubber and cellulose nitrate.

Parkes' first patent was granted in 1841, for a method of waterproofing fabrics by coating them with rubber. In 1843 he patented a process for electroplating an object in a solution of phosphorus contained in bisulfide of carbon and then placing it in nitrate of silver. In 1846 he received a patent for a "cold" vulcanization process and another for reclaiming waste rubber. And, in 1850, he patented a process for removing silver from lead during the production of bullion.

In 1855, Parkes patented the first man-made plastic, which he created by dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol and camphor containing ether; the process created a hard solid which could be molded when heated. Parkesine was first exhibited to the public at the 1862 London International Exhibition, where it was received with much fanfare; he earned a prize medal for his exhibit. He established the Parkesine Company to manufacture and market the plastic in 1866, but the company was never financially successful and was liquidated in 1868 -- Parkesine proved too expensive to mass produce, plus it was highly flammable and prone to cracking. Business associate Daniel Spill improved the process and developed Xylonite, but it too proved unsuccessful.  
Meanwhile American chemist John Wesley Hyatt also developed a man-made plastic, which he called Celluloid, and several patent infringement lawsuits between Parkes, Spill and Hyatt eventually resulted in a U.S. judge declaring Parkes to be the inventor of the first man-made plastic, in 1870.

Despite the lack of financial success with Parkesine, Parkes continued to develop new processes and products related to electroplating, rubber, and plastics, and by the time of his death, which came in London on June 29, 1890, he held over 80 patents.


The middle of the 19th century was one of the fastest changing periods of time in modern history.  Just look at any time line and you'll see the sheer number of new technologies that appeared during that generation is staggering.  Plastics, blue jeans and telegraphy were all invented during this era, and look into any 21st century trendy Starbucks and you'll see plenty of plastic, blue jeans and the latest telephonic devices, all of which came into being around 150 years ago.  Any hip teenagers who believes that they are trendier than their parents because of the clothes they wear, or the items they own should not think over-inflate their own egos.  After all, these items basically came into being 150 years, or six generations, ago.  Not forgetting that opium, cocaine, marijuana, laudanum etc were all legal then.  Some of which the famous author Arthur Conan Doyle consumed (h/t to Vulture of Critique).

It shows that change/innovation often comes thick and fast rather than slowly and continuously as we may like it to happen.  The invention of plastics (which the world uses like the Romans used pottery) was one of those many inventions to come out of that era.


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