Insulating material specimen, 'Isoflex', cellulose acetate, made by May and Baker Ltd, Australia, 1944.
Plastics have been described as "materials that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure or heat." They were a cultural phenomenon in the twentieth century when they changed the way objects were produced, designed and used. It was also in the twentieth century that most plastic products moved away from natural raw materials to synthetically produced ones.
The museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. The collection was driven largely by Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), a former industrial chemist, who worked as curator and later director of the museum from 1927 until 1955.
Between 26 and 28 of September 1934, the Technical College and the museum collaborated to develop what was advocated as the first Plastics Industry Exhibition in Australia. A permanent display of plastics was established at the museum, and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as 'the best display of plastics and fibres in the world show(ing) the complete history of plastics from first experiments to the latest developments'.
The Museum displayed numerous exhibits of cellulose acetate under its various trade names, in different stages of manufacture, and as a variety of finished products. This sample of Isoflex plastic is made from layered cellulose acetate sheets. The development of cellulose acetate revolutionised the injection moulding process, which remains as one of the primary ways to manufacture plastic.
These objects are a part of a large collection of plastics and plastic moulding powders acquired by the museum during Arthur Penfold's career. This collection gives an insight into a period of great social, material, technological and scientific development as well as the collecting practices of the museum at the time. Plastics continues to be an area that is explored and represented in the museum's collection, however today it reflects some of the more ambivalent attitudes towards plastics and their use, particularly in regards to the environment and sustainability.
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11 November 1945.
M. Kaufman, the First Century of Plastics, The Plastics Institute, London, 1963. pg55
Written by Erika Dicker
Assistant Curator, March 2008.
Cellulosic plastics are based on cellulose, which is the principal structural component of plants. The first Cellulosic plastic was invented in 1852 by Alexander Parkes who developed cellulose nitrate into a mouldable dough he called Parkesine. By 1860 it was being pressed into moulds to make billiard balls, pens, and even artificial teeth.
One of the problems with cellulose nitrate was that it was a highly flammable material. Cellulose acetate solved this problem and was first prepared in 1864 . Cellulose acetate is made from wood or cotton fibres that are treated with acetic acid and acetic anhydride, then turned into a powder. It is then mixed with other chemicals to produce a plastic dough. The dough can then be made into sheets, rods or mixing powder. One of the first applications for cellulose acetate was as a safety film, used to coat the fabric wings of aeroplanes during the World War I. Modified cellulose acetate was patented as the first injection moulding compound, revolutionising the plastics fabrication process.
Isoflex is a trade name for an insulating cellulose acetate plastic. It consists of multiple layers of cellulose acetate sheets that provide excellent insulating qualities. It was also lightweight, weighing one-tenth the weight of a slab of cork, and resistant to insect damage. These properties made it an ideal insulating material for use in refrigeration and air-conditioning units. The product was first developed in the early 1930s, and a few years later was being used for insulation in trains, buses, and buildings.
Plastics Historical Society , cellulose acetate fact sheet [online], Available at: http://www.plastiquarian.com/ca.htm accessed March 2008.
Early Plastics- perspectives 1850-1950, edited by Susan Mossman, Leicester University press, London, 1997
Isoflex , Isoflex technical specification [online], available at: http://www.isoflex.se/Technical_specification2.asp. accessed February 2008
Penfold, A. R. paper 'Plastics and Synthetic Fibres', Government Printer, Australia 1956.
This sample of the insulating plastic, Isoflex, was donated to the Museum by May and Baker Ltd, Australia, in 1942, as an addition to the Museum's growing plastics collection.
It is often perceived that plastics are a material of the twentieth century; however, its beginnings go back to eighteenth century Europe and conditions created by rapid industrialisation, scientific curiosity and opportunities to create great wealth through innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. Many of the semi-synthetic plastics of the nineteenth century and the synthetic plastics of the twentieth century were influenced by earlier manufacturing methods of making products out of natural plastics such as horn and tortoiseshell. The development of synthetic plastics, however, allowed for a product that was not subject to availability and fluctuating costs.
The Australian plastics processing industry began around 1917, growing significantly after World War Two. In 1939 production of plastics was around one thousand tonnes per year and fifty years later it had grown to around nine hundred thousand tonnes . New innovations in plastics, a rising population and increasing home ownership and household consumption were major influences on this growth. Today the plastics industry is one of Australia's largest manufacturing sectors.
Between 26 and 28 September 1934, the Sydney Technical College and the museum collaborated to develop what was advocated as the first Plastics Industry Exhibition in Australia. It is likely that this sample was displayed during this exhibition, along with the first permanent plastics display established at the museum. This exhibition was advocated as the first plastics exhibition in Australia. The museum contributed the majority of the exhibits, which included colourful moulded objects and synthetic resin powders. A feature of the exhibition was a working press mould that turned out plastic objects as the audience watched, lent by John Heine and Son. A Conversazione was held on the evening of 26th September, 1934 'to which prominent citizens, including representatives of the Plastics Industry were invited', and at which both Penfold and Dr N H Lang gave lectures on the plastics industry
A permanent display of plastics was established at the museum, and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as 'the best display of plastics and fibres in the worldÂ?show(ing) the complete history of plastics from first experiments to the latest developments' . Penfold was greatly concerned with the technical and commercial development of local industries, such as the plastics industry, and believed that the museum was 'destined to play a conspicuous part in bringing Science to the aid of industry' through both research and display.
In December 1944 Penfold, along with Mr C H Hunt of Newcastle Technical College, was commissioned by the NSW Government to investigate overseas technological trends in the plastic industry, including the training of technical personnel, throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. On his return Penfold continued to promote the importance of Australia's development of a vigorous research and training program in developing local technical expertise arguing that: 'The field is so vast and the potentialities of plastics is so promising, that no effort should be spared to provide adequate training for all persons wishing to acquire a knowledge of these new materials' .
Chemlink Consultants, Australia's Chemical Industry - History and development, available at http://www.chemlink.com.au/chemhist.htm, accessed 08/08/2007.
Penfold, A. R., 'Reports on Plastics Investigation, 1945, in the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom', 31/10/1945
Penfold, A. R., paper, 'Recent Developments of Plastics Overseas', delivered before the Plastics Institute of Australia, NSW Section, 29/11/1945
Penfold, A. R., 'The Influence of Science Museums on Industry', read at the first Biannual Conference of International Council on Museums, 1948
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11/11/1945
Sydney Technological Museum, Annual Report, 1934