Grand piano shaped music box, polymethyl methacrylate / metal, maker unknown, United States of America, 1944-1950
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'.
This Perspex music box was brought back from New York by Penfold in 194-1945. It represents one of the many objects that were being made out of the acrylic in the 1940s, utilising its transparent nature.
This object is 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
Poly-methyl methacrylate is an acrylic plastic more commonly known by its trade names; Perspex, Plexiglass or Lucite
Perspex is a thermoplastic acrylic that is hard and transparent. It was first developed as a safety glass and was manufactured into sheets and rods, which could then fabricated by machining, thermoforming, and engraving.
The aircraft industry was the first major user of Perspex in the 1930s and it was widely used in military aircraft during World War II. Due to Perspex's excellent weathering resistance and light transparency, it was used in aircraft glazing, and as an alternative to glass in windshields and instrument panels.
After the war, Perspex became easily accessible and was fashioned into all kinds of fancy dress goods, decorative objects, household goods, and found a particular application in the making of dentures.
Australia was the first to use Perspex in the manufacture of bathtubs in 1948. It was the first time Perspex had been used in such an application, initiated from the tremendous effort involved in moving heavy cast iron baths. The strong, durable, and easily coloured characteristics of the plastic, lent itself to being perfectly suited for the production of baths. This Australian innovation resulted in acrylic becoming the internationally preferred material for the production of baths by the 1990s.
Perspex is still widely used as a safe alternative to glass in many industries such as medical technology, furniture, engineering, and the decorative arts.
A. R. Penfold, Modern Trends in the Manual Arts, lecture series, MAAS archive MRS 307-12/14:24
John Acres, Seeing a Problem Through, Journal of the Plastics Historical Society, No 14, Winter, 1994/5, pg 4-5
Know Your Plastics, Plastics Industry Association Inc, Australia, 1980
Polymethyl methacrylate information sheet, Plastiquarian, available at: http://www.plastiquarian.com/acrylics1.htm
This music box is made from polymethyl methacrylate (or Perspex). It was purchased by curator Arthur Penfold on his overseas trip to New York in 1944-1945, and added to the Museum's collection on his return.
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. 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. 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
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
Correspondence, A. R. Penfold/ F.T. Wheeler, Museum Archives MRS202., 1942