Firing mechanism (part), Bofors gun, plastic, made by the Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd, Arncliffe, New South Wales, Australia, 1941
The museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. This 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. Concerned with the technical and commercial development of local industries, in particular Australia's plastics industry, Penfold believed that the museum was 'destined to play a conspicuous part in bringing Science to the aid of industry', through both research and display (Penfold 1948).
This plastic Bofors gun firing mechanism, part of the museum's early plastics collection, was acquired from Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd in 1941 as an example of the use of plastics within the defence industry. In 1942 Penfold wrote to Commonwealth Moulding indicating his desire to develop 'an exhibit showing the use of plastics for war purposes' (Penfold 17/02/1942) and later requested 'any new specimens of plastics used for defence purposes' (Penfold 31/03/1942). Further objects, including plastic components used in aircraft manufacture, were received from the company.
The collection of Commonwealth Moulding samples, many of which relate to aircraft and defence purposes, are part of a large and significant collection of plastics and plastic moulding powders acquired by the museum throughout Arthur Penfold's career. This collection gives insight into a period of great social, material, technological and scientific development, and reflects some of the museum's collecting practices and research focuses at this time. Plastics continues to be an area that is explored and represented in the museum's collection, however today reflects some of the more ambivalent attitudes towards plastics and their use, particularly in regards to environmental and sustainability issues.
Australian War Memorial (AWM), 'Out in the Cold: Australia's Involvement in the Korean War', available at:
http://www.awm.gov.au/korea/weapons/bofors/bofors.htm, accessed 27/08/2007
BAE Systems, 'Heritage: 1929 Bofors 40mm Anti-Aircraft Gun', available at: http://production.investis.com/heritage/nonflash/timeline/1929_bofors_40mm_anti_aircraft_g/, accessed 27/08/2007
Penfold, A. R., personal correspondence, addressed to A. W. Baker, Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd, Arncliffe, 17/02/1942, museum archives
Penfold, A. R., personal correspondence, addressed to A. W. Baker, Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd, Arncliffe, 31/03/1942, museum archives
Penfold, A. R., paper, 'The Influence of Science Museums on Industry', read at the first Biannual Conference of International Council on Museums, 1948
The 1943 Australasian Manufacturers Directory lists Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd as operating from 242 Princes Highway, Arncliffe, New South Wales, Australia. The company is listed as producing such wares as aircraft parts, electrical appliances and parts, jewellery, furniture and interior decorations, household and kitchen appliances, industrial equipment, and optical equipment (Plastics Institute of Australia 1947).
REF: Plastics Institute of Australia, 'Australian Plastics Trade Directory', Sydney, 1947
Development of the Swedish designed 40mm Bofors gun began in 1929 and continued into the 1930s (BAE Systems). Bofors guns were used by both sides during the Second World War, largely as anti-aircraft artillery (AWM). This plastic Bofors gun firing mechanism, part of the museum's early plastics collection, was acquired from Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd in 1941 as an example of the use of plastics within the defence industry.
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.
A major development in plastics was the introduction of phenolic plastics, also known by popular names such as 'Bakelite' and 'Nestorite', which are valued for their excellent heat resistance and low electrical conductivity. The scientific achievement underpinning the product is predominantly associated with the work of Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), a Belgian-American industrial chemist, who reacted (condensed) phenol and formaldehyde to form a resin that hardened upon cooling and which, when moulded, had excellent mechanical and electrical properties. Baekeland patented the name 'Bakelite' to the product in 1907, and it went on to become a hugely successful commercial venture particularly from the mid twenties to around 1950 (Cook 1992). In the 1930s there was a surge of interest in plastics and plastic products, particularly coloured Urea-formaldehyde laminates. These products had excellent temperature resistance but, unlike early Bakelite, could be produced in different colours.
The Australian plastics processing industry began around 1917 and grew significantly after World War Two, substituting raw materials such as metal that were in short supply. 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 (Chemlink Consultants 2007). 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.
The museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. This 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. 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' (Sunday Telegraph 1945).
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. The museum contributed the majority of the exhibits, which included colourful moulded objects and synthetic resin powders. The highlight of the exhibition was a standard hydraulic press that produced synthetic resin objects while the audience watched. This was loaned by John Heine and Son and run by staff from the College's Mechanical Engineering department. It utilised dies made by College students and synthetic moulding resin powders from local plastic companies. 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 (Annual Report 1934). Describing the plastics industry as 'one of the greatest achievements of our time', the event aimed to explore and promote 'the wizardry of the Chemist's Art' (Sydney Technical College 1934).
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 (Penfold 29/11/1945), arguing that: 'The field is so vast and the potentialities of plasticsÂ?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' (Penfold 31/10/1945).
Cook, Patrick & Catherine Slessor, 'Bakelite: An Illustrated Guide to Collectable Bakelite Objects', The Apple Press, London, 1992, p12
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., personal correspondence, addressed to A. W. Baker, Commonwealth Moulding Pty Ltd, Arncliffe, 17/2/1942, museum archives
Penfold, A R, 'Reports on Plastics Investigation, 1945, in the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom', 31/10/1945, p9
Penfold, A. R., paper, 'Recent Developments of Plastics Overseas', delivered before the Plastics Institute of Australia, NSW Section, 29/11/1945
Sydney Technical College Chemical Society, 'Conversazione to celebrate the 21st Anniversary of the Society', 1934
Sydney Technological Museum, Annual Report, 1934
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11 November 1945