Sample of urea-formaldehyde insulating material, 'Bumaxit', maker unknown, Switzerland, 1946
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 insulating material is made from urea formaldehyde, a plastic similar to Bakelite. 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. This sample of insulting material was donated to the Museum by Wunderlich Ltd in 1946. Wunderlich was one of Australia's earliest and most significant building companies.
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
Penfold, A. R., 'Plastics and Synthetic Fibres', A.H. Pettifer, Government Printer, Sydney, 1956
Written by Erika Dicker
Assistant Curator, May 2008.
Urea, also known as Carbamide, is an organic compound that is very soluble in water. It was synthesised in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler. Urea moulding powders are used in the manufacture of plastics: 'Urea and formaldehyde are reacted with a catalyst to form a water soluble resin.' The result is a water-white and translucent powder that is suited to make colourful plastic products. Some qualities of these moulding powders are that they are non-flammable, resistant to corrosion, and free from odour and taste, making them ideal for many domestic applications.
Resin products made by heating urea with formaldehyde were patented by Hanns John in 1918. The first commercial moulding powders using thiourea and formaldehyde were developed by the British Cyanides Company (later to become British Industrial Plastics Ltd). These moulding powders became known as 'Beetle' moulding powders.
J. Hayes, 'From Cyanide to 'Beetle'', in Plastiquarian no. 14 Winter 1994/5, viewed online http://www.plastiquarian.com/styr3n3/pqs/pq14.htm, accessed 02/08/2007.
Plastics Industry Association, Know Your Plastics, Plastics Institute of Australia Inc., Australia, 1992. Plastiquarian, 'Thiourea formaldehyde', available at http://www.plastiquarian.com/thiourea.htm, accessed 03/08/2007
Albert Attwood, Plastics Afloat, Journal of the Plastics Historical Society, Winter, No 31, 2003
This sample of urea formaldehyde insulating material was donated by the Wunderlich Ltd in 1946.
Ernest, Alfred and (from 1900) Otto Wunderlich began importing zinc roofing into Australia during the 1880s, forming a public company in 1893 and buying the Redfern metalworking factory of WH Rocke & Co. The company also imported roofing tiles and began manufacturing them in 1913 at Brunswick, Melbourne and Rose Hill, Sydney. In 1916 Wunderlich's Camellia factory produced the first Australian asbestos-cement (fibro) products. Wunderlich was purchased by CSR Limited in 1969 and its production facilities and tradenames were sold to a variety of other companies.
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 world 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
A. R. Penfold and F. R. Morrison, The Influence of Science Museums on Industry, museum archive MRS 307-12/1:13