Welcome to UK's #1 choice for all things rubber!

Shopping Cart

  • 0 Item
  • |
  • £0.00

Alexander Parkes

English inventor Alexander Parkes is famous for discovering manmade plastic in the 19th century. His ground-breaking invention in 1856 became known as Parkesine in his honour.

His discovery has been labelled the single most important invention in the history of plastic. Parkesine is regarded as the beginning of the plastics industry as we know it, but sadly, Parkes never became rich from his creation, as its importance wasn't recognised until after his death.

Alexander Parkes

© Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0


Early years

Parkes was born in December 1813 in Birmingham. As a youth, he became an apprentice to his father, a brass lock manufacturer. He later went to work for local manufacturers George and Henry Elkington, who patented electroplating.

The electroplating process uses an electric current to form a thin metal coating on objects, altering the properties of the surface to make it abrasion and wear-resistant, corrosion-free and more aesthetically pleasing. Parkes became fascinated by electroplating and began developing the process.

In 1841, he took out his first patent using electroplating to protect delicate works of art by silver-plating them. While refining the process, it was said the method became so precise that it could protect even the most delicate of items, such as spiders' webs and living plants.


Rubber development

Parkes' research work led him to start testing the interesting properties of natural rubber. In doing so, he had the idea for creating a new, fully synthetic building material that could be moulded while it was hot.

In 1841, he received his first patent for the new method of using thin coats of rubber to waterproof fabrics. It was one of his most important contributions when he discovered the cold vulcanisation process. He devised his method of waterproofing fabrics using a solution of rubber and carbon disulphide.

For the next decade, he continued experimenting with rubber and was granted numerous patents for his inventions. He combined electroplating and rubberisation and also worked on rubber recycling. He patented a cold cure process in 1846.

Manufacturing engineer Thomas Hancock, who founded the rubber manufacturing industry in England, called Parkes' invention "one of the most valuable and extraordinary discoveries" in history.


Vulcanised rubber

Today, vulcanised rubber has many different uses and has become an invaluable product in the 21st century. It is used to make both hard and soft objects, from bowling balls to rubber bands. In fact, the majority of rubber objects today are manufactured from vulcanised rubber.

Vulcanisation produces commercial-grade rubber, as natural rubber isn't stable enough to produce items as it would melt when warm, break apart when cold and become sticky.

Natural rubber contains polymer chains, which enable it to be de-formed. Vulcanisation forms "bridges" between the polymer chains. This means the rubber can be de-formed when stress is applied, but then it will return to its original shape when the stress is removed.

Today, vulcanised rubber makes a huge selection of items, including hosepipes, soles for footwear, tyres for vehicles, bouncing balls, toys, hockey pucks, erasers, and instrument mouthpieces.


Parkesine invention

In 1856, at the age of 43, Parkes invented the first thermoplastic, Parkesine. It was a celluloid based on nitrocellulose, which was treated with a combination of solvents. He dissolved cellulose nitrate in alcohol mixed with camphor containing ether. The resulting material was transparent, easily moulded when hot, and hard when cold.

Parkes exhibited the material at the 1862 London International Exhibition. The focal point of his presentation included kitchen items made from plastic. He had no way of knowing that his creation had anticipated the modern utility and aesthetic uses of plastics.

Industry chiefs and the public showed massive interest in his product. He established The Parkesine Company in 1866 at Hackney Wick, London, for the low-cost, bulk production of his product.

Sadly, it wasn't the anticipated commercial success he had hoped for, because it turned out to be too expensive to produce Parkesine. It was also highly flammable and prone to cracking, so consumer demand wasn't there. Subsequently, his business folded in 1868.

Undeterred, Parkes continued his research and held at least 66 patents for processes and products he had devised in the field of plastic development and electroplating. Sadly, he died in June 1890, without ever seeing the potential of his invention fully realised.


Parkes' legacy

In the 20th century, industry finally realised the true value of Parkes' invention. However, his legacy wasn't publicly recognised until 112 years after his death, when the Plastics Historical Society erected a plaque on his former home in Dulwich, London, in 2002.

In 2004, Birmingham Civic Society installed a commemorative plaque at Elkington Silver Electroplating Works on Newhall Street, Birmingham. The American Plastics Academy posthumously inducted Parkes into their Hall of Fame in 2005.

Today, Coruba is one of the UK's leading providers of rubber products, including a wide range of rubber matting for all purposes and sectors. For enquiries, please call 01702 560194 or use our handy online contact form.

Recent Posts

How Do Anti-Fatigue Mats Work?

How Do Anti-Fatigue Mats Work?

Posted On: September 24, 2021

Benefits of Kitchen Matting

Benefits of Kitchen Matting

Posted On: August 26, 2021

How to Avoid Electrical Accidents

How to Avoid Electrical Accidents

Posted On: July 21, 2021

Workplace Fall Stats

Workplace Fall Stats

Posted On: June 18, 2021