Early samples of Parkesine, c 1862.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
The bright yellow material on the left was once two rolls of thin film. Parkesine is thought to have been the first plastic, a mouldable cellulose nitrate which was invented by Alexander Parkes (1813-1890). It was made of cotton fibres disolved 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. Early plastics based on cellulose nitate are especially likely to become unstable with age.