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English inventor Alexander Parkes (1813—1890) created the earliest form of plastic in 1855. He mixed pyroxylin, a partially nitrated form of cellulose (cellulose is the major component of plant cell walls), with alcohol and camphor. This produced a hard but flexible transparent material, which he called "Parkesine." Parkes teamed up with a manufacturer to produce Parkesine; however, they were unable to market it. The material was so strange and new that no one knew how to use it.
In 1868, an American inventor, John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920), acquired the patent to Parkesine and set out to produce artificial ivory for billiard balls. Hyatt modified Parkes's process—he first soaked cotton in nitric acid and then added camphor. This yielded a hard, flexible material called celluloid. Celluloid was soon used to make of a variety of household items, such as buttons, letter openers, boxes, hatpins, combs, fountain pens, and knife handles. The material was also produced in the form of celluloid strips, which were coated with a light-sensitive "film." Celluloid strips proved ideal for shooting and showing movie pictures.
In 1904, a Belgian scientist, Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), brought plastic a step closer to the modern-day material. Baekeland produced a synthetic shellac from formaldehyde and phenol. He then subjected this material to high heat and pressure, creating a hard plastic called "bakelite." Bakelite and other, more versatile plastics eventually replaced celluloid. By the 1940s, the market for celluloid had shrunk to the point that it was no longer of commercial importance.
Sources: The American Heritage Dictionary of Science and Technology, vol. 3, no. 1 (Summer 1987), 18-23; De Bono, Edward. Eureka! p. 89; Travers, Bridget, ed. World of Invention, pp. 132-33; 487-88.
The first plastic was created by Alexander Parkes who publicly demonstrated at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862.
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