Parkesine: How Alexander Parkes paved the way for plastic’s global mass production from a tiny Hackney Wick factory
- Credit: Emma Bartholomew
As the Gazette’s environment correspondent Will McCallum, who works for Greenpeace, publishes a book about ‘How to give up Plastic’, Emma Bartholomew looks back to where the problem first began - at the world’s first ever plastic factory in Hackney Wick, set up by Alexander Parkes.
Plastic has become a hot topic of late, since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet documentary sparked a mass outcry about the bottles, ear buds, straws and such that pollute our oceans and contaminate our food chain.
And a commemorative plaque stating “first plastic in the world” on the side a graffiti-strewn warehouse in Wallis Road, Hackney Wick, signposts the beginning of the mass consumerism which spawned the problem.
While it’s a matter of debate who first came up with the invention, in Britain we give credit to Alexander Parkes, who called his semi-synthetic cellulosic material Parkesine.
Having mixed nitric and sulphuric acid with cotton, vegetable oils and organic solvents the heat-softened dough was pressed into moulds to make objects like combs, billiard balls, pens, buttons, knife handles and gums for dentures.
In 1862 he displayed some at the International Exhibition and was awarded a bronze medal for excellence of quality.
Dr Susan Mossman from the Science Museum, who has written a book about early plastics, told the Gazette: “The key thing is it was a time when people were really looking at new inventions, and looking at replacing ivory and tortoiseshell. It’s a time of thinking and experimentation.
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“What’s interesting about Parkes is he’s not trained as a formal scientist or chemist. He’s trained in his father’s brass works.”
Susan thinks he probably came up with the invention with some help from his little brother Henry – whose education at the Royal College of Chemistry he many have funded. They may have come up with the idea through a letter written by Christian Schonbein to Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution.
“The nature of invention is always one step on another and there’s rarely a Eureka moment where something comes out of nothing,” she said.
“Henry is a shadow figure you don’t hear much of, but they carry on in partnership. Nobody ever works on their own. It’s usually a collaboration.”
The Parkesine Company launched in 1866 with £100,000 investment – but two years later it went into liquidation.
Complaints flooded in that Parkes’ combs “became so wrinkled and contorted as to be useless” within a few weeks. And they weren’t fire proof.
“One of the reasons his business failed is he got obsessed with producing his materials for a shilling a pound and used cheap materials,” said Susan. He may not have allowed his products to cure sufficiently, so he either tried to do it too quickly or too cheaply.
“Another thing is he had his fingers in so many pies. From his diaries we know he’s working on various things simultaneously and he has 88 patents to his name.”
A further reason Parkes might have been incapable of focus was he had “far too many children to look after” – having 17 kids with two wives.
The Science Museum has over 300 Parkesine objects in its collection, with 88 pieces that were donated by Parkes’ family in the 1930s – but they are too fragile to put on permanent show. They were last on view in 2013 for the bicentenary of Parkes’ death, but had to be rotated three times throughout the year because they are vulnerable to light and heat.
“They are rare and precious, and the material doesn’t last forever,” said Susan. “The plasticisers migrate out of the system. There is work being done on how to preserve them, and you can potentially stabilise for a bit, but we are careful how we put it on display now. “Everyone goes on about this stuff lasting forever and that’s false. It degrades down and within 50 years I would have thought it won’t be here.”
Much to Parkes’ discontent, his works manager Daniel Spill bought his liquidated patents and set up the Xylonite Company in 1869 in another Hackney Wick factory. An agent would go around Britain with a trade catalogue and people would buy a comb one week and a mirror the next.
“Initially it was about making decorative and pretty goods available to a wider group of middle class people, with more disposable income,” said Susan, “They were slightly luxurious goods for a wider demographic. It’s the beginning of mass consumerism.”
Parkes was unhappy that Spill went around “telling everyone he invented it”. Towards the end of his life in 1881 a letter he wrote indicates he felt his own contribution to celluloid’s invention was unrecognised.
“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,” he said.