Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first synthetic plastic, c 1870-1879.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Alexander Parkes (1813-1890) was born in Birmingham, West Midlands, and was apprenticed to a bras founders before joining Elkington, Mason & Co as manager of a casting department. A prolific inventor, Parkes took out 46 patents during his career, most of them relating to electroplating proceses. He also produced the first man-made plastic, which he patented in 1855. It was an organic material derived from cellulose that, once heated, could be moulded, but when cooled would retain its shape. He called the material 'Parkesine' and exhibited it at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862. In 1866 he established the Parkesine Company in London, laying the foundations of the plastics industry.