Notebooks of Alexander Parkes, c 1860s-1870s.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Thirteen manuscript notebooks of plastics pioneer Alexander Parkes (1813-1890). Much of the text is on metallurgical subjects such as iron, copper and other alloys. Parkes invented Parkesine, a mouldable cellulose nitrate thought to have been the first plastic. It was made of cotton fibres dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acids, and mixed with vegetable oil. It was softened by heat and then moulded or hand carved. Parkesine's great disadvantage, however, was its high flammability. Although Parkes took out a number of patents for his newly discovered material in 1855, it was not until the Hyatt brothers of New Jersey developed it into celluloid that its commercial potential began to be realised.