The First “Natural" Thermoplastics
As early as the mid-1800’s scientists had recognized and had begun to experiment with polymers, the long strands of molecular material that occur in natural plants. The most abundant and easily obtainable polymer is cellulose, and the scientists and chemists of the day carried out hundreds of different experiments, using various solutions and preparations of cellulose. In 1855 an English inventor, Alexander Parkes, developed what was probably the first “commercial" plastic, by mixing nitrocellulose with camphor and producing “Parkesine" (ever modest these inventors!). It was a hard, flexible, and transparent material. Unfortunately, Mr. Parkes went bankrupt trying to develop and produce it.
The patent was bought by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt, who wanted to use the material to produce billiard balls, which were then manufactured from ivory, an increasingly rare and expense resource. Hyatt was successful in this enterprise, and afterward, he and his brother Isaiah extended their experiments and in 1870 developed probably the most famous of the cellulose thermoplastics, Celluloid, named by Isaiah when it went into production in 1872. It was used in the manufacture of a multitude of objects, especially anything that had previously been made from any type of exotic animal horn, which, like the prime horn material, ivory, was becoming more difficult and expensive to source. Its most memorable use came with the advent of “The Movies" where its thin flexible properties, its transparency, and its ability to accept surface photographic developers made it the ideal medium to produce reels of film.
Celluloid, however, did have some major drawbacks: it was highly flammable, it was fragile, it discolored in strong sunlight, and it deteriorated with age, becoming extremely brittle. Nowadays, advances in chemical engineering have eliminated or ameliorated some of these faults, but at the time it was beyond the capability of the day.
Although it was a mammoth discovery and quite filled the niche at the time, the requirement was still open for a more stable, robust, and easily molded material. However, it would be nearly forty years before that material, “Bakelite," would appear on the scene.