my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.
In 1967, Mr McGuire had ‘just one word’ for Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and that one word was ‘plastics’, the implication being that these manmade materials were the future for success in business, but in fact plastics had already been around for more than a century, thanks to Alexander Parkes and his invention of Xylonite, the first thermoplastic, in 1856.
Parkes was born in Birmingham in 1813, the son of a brass lock manufacturer. After an apprenticeship at a brass founders, he worked for George and Henry Elkington who had patented the electroplating process. Parkes took to this technology and devised a way of electroplating the most delicate of objects, a process he used to silver-plate a spider’s web which he presented to Prince Albert when he visited the factory in 1844.
This was the start of an impressive career as an inventor. In 1846 he patented the cold cure process for vulcanizing rubber, called by Thomas Hancock ‘one of the most valuable and extraordinary discoveries of the age’, then in 1848 he developed and patented the process for making phosphor-bronze.
But his great breakthrough came in 1856 when he created the first thermoplastic, a celluloid based on nitrocellulose which he exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition.
He named the material Parkesine and anticipating the many uses that plastics could be put to, he first patented it as a waterproofer for clothing and set up the Parkesine Company in London in 1866 with the aim of producing his plastic in bulk. Unfortunately, the venture was not a success. Parkesine was expensive to produce, prone to cracking and highly flammable and the business closed in 1868.
However, partner and works manager, Daniel Spill, was convinced that this ‘synthetic ivory’ had massive potential and he took over most of the stock and renamed it Xylonite. Despite many setbacks, his faith in this early plastic finally paid off when he formed the British Xylonite Company in 1877 which went on to employ 1,160 people, changing its name to BX Plastics in 1902.
Neither Parkes nor Spill lived to see their faith repaid. The former died in 1890, while Spill died of diabetes in 1887 aged 55, after spending many years in legal battles with the Celluloid Manufacturing Company for infringement of his patents.
But their legacy in Xylonite lives on, most famously in the film industry and that most humble object that we are all familiar with – the table tennis ball.