Apparatus used to discover polyethylene, 1933.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
On 24th March 1933 a team led by Reginald Gibson set up an experiment in which a mixture of ethylene and benzaldehyde was heated to 170 degrees Celsius, presurised to 1700 atmospheres and then left. Instead of the substances combining as expected, a 'waxy solid' was found. Gibson's colleague, Eric Fawcett, demonstrated that this was a polymer of ethylene that could be melted and drawn into threads. The material was polyethylene, also known as polyethene or polythene. The apparatus was presented by ICI to the Science Museum in London on the 50th anniversary of the first experiment.