Parkesine; the first plastic, mid 19th century.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Parkesine is thought to have been the first plastic, a mouldable cellulose nitrate which was developed in the early 1860s and 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.