Objects made from Parkesine, 1855-1891.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
The items include a decorative plate, a medallion, hair slides, experimental pieces, two trademarked discs, ornaments, a snuff box and a decorative plaque. Parkesine is thought to have been the first semi-synthetic 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 the 1860s, it was not until the Hyatt brothers of New Jersey developed it as celluloid that its commercial potential began to be realised.