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Parkesine & Xylonite – the first plastics

Before plastic existed, the closest thing in existence was probably Vulcanite, a mixture of natural rubber and sulphur. It was discovered in 1839 by American Charles Goodyear and patented in 1843. Vulcanite was used to make jewellery and other goods, but it was almost always black. Colour could only be added to the surface with dyes and shellacs.

The first man-made plastic was an invention of English scientist Alexander Parkes. He unveiled Parkesine at the 1862 London International Exhibition. Parkesine, an organic material that could be heated and molded but would retain its shape when cooled, was made by dissolving cellulose nitrate in just a bit of solvent. Unlike rubber (or Vulcanite), it could be coloured or transparent and could be carved into any shape. In 1866, four years after the exhibition, Parkes formed the Parkesine Company; it failed after only two years due to high production costs (even though Parkes had claimed it was cheaper than rubber).

logo of Xylonite Ltd.A year after the Parkesine Company folded, an associate of Parkes named Daniel Spill tried to market a similar substance under the name Xylonite (from the Greek xylon, meaning "wood" — perhaps some of it looked like imitation wood). The Xylonite Company survived only five years and went bankrupt in 1874. However, Spill then formed the Daniel Spill Company and continued production of Xylonite, which was used to make imitation coral jewellery, among other things.

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