Celebrating Alexander Parkes

Materials World magazine
,
1 Dec 2017

Parkesine is just one of the many inventions associated with Alexander Parkes (1813–1890), but he was a metallurgist first and foremost. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen looks back at the legacy of a polymath.

If you take a closer look at Birmingham’s coat of arms, you will notice the arm and hammer in commemoration of the metal industries that made the city prosper. Between the 19th to early 20th century, the city boasted over 3,000 brass and copper makers. 

By the 1830s, Messenger & Sons on Broad Street had become widely respected for its brass and plated goods, from intricate candelabras to chandeliers and railway lamps. This is where Alexander Parkes, the middle child of eight children, came upon his first apprenticeship.

Brass tacks

Son of a brass lock manufacturer, Parkes had a natural affinity for metallurgy and became more and more intrigued by its use for artistic processes. With a decent level of work experience behind him, he went on to work for a series of metal foundries before securing employment with the prestigious silver plating firm Elkington & Co on Newhall Street. It was here that Parkes became fascinated with the process of electroplating.

He was given the freedom to analyse, study and employ the art of electroplating. His skill was unrivalled and he began to develop precise methods to coat fragile and fine objects, from bug catching networks to plants, flowers and even spider webs.

First established in the 1830s by brother duo George and Henry Elkington, the firm became synonymous for high quality silver-plating, boasting royal warrants of appointment. Electrotyping had become an easy, frequently used way to make high-quality reproductions of works of art. These finally made them accessible to larger audiences and available for study. 

His unique method involved dipping delicate items in a solution of phosphorus, dissolved in carbon disulphide, followed by silver nitrate, before the electrolytic deposition of metal, which produced a suitably thin metal coating. In 1843, Parkes was granted a patent for electroplating flowers and other fine objects. 

Much of Parkes’ work harked back to metallurgical processes. For instance, he was one of the first to record that metal alloys could be strengthened by the introduction of small amounts of phosphorus.

Philip Law, Director of the British Plastics Federation, told Materials World, ‘For me, Alexander Parkes was a classic Victorian inventor and entrepreneur with fingers in many pies – metals and chemicals as well as his pioneering nitrocellulose material.’ 

A serial inventor

In 1843, having mastered electroplating, Parkes became interested in exploring the properties of rubber. He went on to discover a cold cure process for the vulcanisation of rubber, where the material was placed in a room-temperature carbon disulphide solution. In 1846, Parkes handed over the processing technique to Manchester manufacturing company Charles Macintosh & Co for £5,000 – home to the then deceased Scottish inventor of the raincoat and his partner, manufacturing engineer Thomas Hancock.

The incredibly simple cold process was a revolutionary commercial discovery that developed on Goodyear’s earlier invention and would finally eliminate the intensive heating process. It was, therefore, easy to produce rubber sheets that were malleable for repairs and a range of consumer items, from balloons to rubber toys. The same method was also later used for waterproofing fabrics. Unfortunately for Hancock, this very simplicity meant the technique could not be long contained as a trade secret, as it was ideal for smaller operations and workshops and conveniently easy for other manufacturers to replicate.

In 1850, Parkes suffered the tragic loss of his first wife Jane Henshall Parkes – mother of his four sons and two daughters. He promptly moved to South Wales and threw himself into another line of work – the supervision of a copper smelting works at Burry Port Harbour, not far from Llanelly, under Elkington & Mason. 

Copper would be shipped to the port from copper mines in Devon, Cornwall, and North Wales, as well as other areas in Britain. However, as demand for ore increased, importers were soon forced to look for alternative sources outside the country, such as Portugal, South Africa, Australia and Chile – which later became the main supplier to the copper works.

During this time, Parkes managed to again channel his ambitions to create perhaps his most uncelebrated industrial discovery – the Parkes process. This was a method of extracting silver from lead ore, which involved adding zinc to molten lead. When cooled, it formed a silver-rich zinc crust that would separate and then rise to the surface and be removed continuously.

Parkesine

By 1853, Parkes had left Wales and married again. It was not long before he would come to unravel his most renowned invention, the first man-made plastic, a flexible nitrocellulose material later named Parkesine, patented in 1855. 

The material was a combination of organic matter – cotton fibre – mixed with chemical nitrates, vegetable oils, camphor and alcohol. Previously developed as an explosive, cellulose nitrate was often referred to as gun cotton because of its explosive nature when heated. Using Parkesine for anything that involved much friction was best avoided at all costs. 

However, Parkes had the foresight to see that the material could be mass produced and moulded more easily than the likes of rubber. He managed to refine a range of everyday uses for it, from coatings to electrical insulation, with applications later accelerating to the protection of wounds and photography. 

‘Parkesine initiated the commercial plastics industry,’ explains Law. ‘Active in Birmingham and London, the remains of his company are still evident in Hackney Wick, London. It is no exaggeration to say that he invented the commercial plastics industry and all that happened thereafter was inspired by the properties of Parkesine. 

‘From the limited array of products made from nitrocellulose, ping-pong balls and ivory substitutes for combs and ornaments stick in my mind. It also established the UK as the birthplace of plastics and it has been in our industrial DNA ever since, with polyethylene being discovered by Imperial Chemical Industries in 1933 and polyaryletheretherketone, as produced by Victrex, being invented in the early 1980s.’

On the wider impact of Parkes' work, he adds, 'There’s around 300 million tonnes of plastics being produced globally.' This, Law says, has brought many benefits to society, ‘including warmer homes, greater mobility and a wider choice of foodstuffs. All can be traced back to Parkes’.

While plastics are now widely known to be cheap, lightweight and easy to manufacture, this wasn’t always the case, and certainly not in 1866. In the same year, Parkes built the Parkesine Company in Hackney Wick, near Victoria Park station, to rollout the material. However, he had great difficulty producing it inexpensively on such a large scale. 

Parkes had tried to reduce costs but the lack of uniformity in his raw materials had resulted in quality variations of the final product – the material was flammable and often prone to breaking. He subsequently resigned his commercial efforts and decided to hand over the business to his then works manager, Daniel Spill. The Parkesine Company ceased trading in 1868, a bittersweet ending to an invention he is now widely appreciated for. 

Spill went on to rebrand the firm as the Xylonite Company in 1869 and moved location, but Spill too suffered mixed success. Younger, and with more still to prove, he finally began to reap the rewards on entering a partnership and yet another rebrand in 1877, forming the British Xynolite Company. 

When Parkes demonstrated Parkesine at the Great International Exhibition in 1862, little did he know that a century later his invention would still be seen and heard, from the mass manufacture of vinyl records to celluloid film.

Indeed, he paved the way for his successors. He lived to be 76 years old, and had over 66 patents, 17 children and two marriages.

UK plastics sector in numbers:

  • 7,500 – the number of plastics companies in the UK
  • £19 billion – the turnover of the plastics sector (incl. raw materials, products & equipment) 
  • 35% – the total amount of plastics and plastic products exported each year
  • £6.7 billion – the estimated value of plastic exports 
  • 2.5 million tonnes – the amount of plastic materials now produced each year 

Source: British Plastics Federation