ICI Exhibition Booklet - Flipbook - Page 10
The Age of Plastics: the beginnings, 1930s
‘By the way, what are plastics?’
– Adrian Hodgkin, first Chief Executive
ICI Plastics Division to Henry Mond, 1933
In the late 1920s, although ‘Bakelite’ products were familiar as small household wares and there was a rising demand for
electrical gadgets to be made of plastic, the word ‘plastic’ was not part of everyday language. A report compiled by ICI in
1927 described the plastics business as a promising market for some of the materials the company was already producing,
or could produce, but it was not seen as an area of great potential for research or innovation.
Polythene: blue sky research, talent, and a discovery at Winnington Hall
The world’s most common plastic, polythene, with global production at more than 60 million tonnes, has uses that reach far and wide: film,
packaging, containers, plastic bags, pans, bowls, and bottles. It was discovered, independently of conscious research into the industrial
potential of new plastics, at Winnington Hall, a place steeped in the Mond philosophy that research paved the way for industrial progress.
Freeth, Research Director at the time of ICI’s formation, was a firm believer in ‘blue sky’ research, importing experts from the
Netherlands in glass blowing and instrument making, along with brilliant young English chemists, such as John Swallow, Reginald Gibson,
Michael Willcox Perrin, and Eric Fawcett. Gibson and Perrin developed international relationships, spending time in the Netherlands under Dr
Anton Michels. A Physical Chemistry group was set up under John Swallow to investigate reactions at high pressures. In early 1931, Michels
visited from Amsterdam, suggesting that pressures above 1,000atm might actuate chemical reactions that would normally depend on catalysis.
Intrigued, Professor Robert Robinson, from the research committee, suggested reactions such as benzaldehyde and ethylene. A young Dermot
Manning was brought in from Cambridge to design ‘bombs’ of up to 3,000atm capacity and Fawcett and Gibson were recalled to Winnington.
One weekend in March 1933, they set out to react ethylene and benzaldehyde at 170°C and a pressure of 1,900atm. There was a significant
pressure drop in the system and, by Monday morning, all the benzaldehyde had blown out of the test tube into the oil. Fawcett and Gibson
investigated further, cutting open the bomb to find a waxy build-up at the gas inlet – polymerised ethylene. However, the consensus was that this
process was impossible and Fawcett was removed from the team. It was not until December 1935 that Michael Perrin, John Paton, and Edmond
Williams were given resources to continue the work, using ethylene alone. Once again, pressure started to fall and the reaction vessel was filled
with polyethylene. The residue oxygen in the ethylene gas cylinder had acted as a catalyst.
‘It could be moulded, when heated under a slight pressure, and formed into films and threads. It did not melt in
boiling water. It was chemically resistant, as would be expected with a pure hydrocarbon. Also, because of its chemical
composition, it would be sure to have outstandingly good properties as an electrical insulator.’
– Michael Perrin
Polythene and Radar: instrumental in winning the war
In 1937, nobody envisaged polythene film as a packaging material or dreamed of its ultimate
mass production for household wares. When war broke out, its development was still very
experimental and it was the need for improved radar signal that brought about its demand.
The invention of the cavity magnetron meant the precision of radar developed faster than the
ability to effectively read the information. Polythene insulation of the wiring improved it and
created radar sets light enough to install in aircraft, with clear, detailed, sharply defined images.
‘What is now decisive is that enemy aircraft have been equipped with a
new location apparatus... which enables them to detect submarines and to
attack them unexpectedly in low cloud, bad visibility, or at night’
– Admiral Doenitz to Hitler, May 1943
The invention of Bakelite by Leo Baekeland marked the
beginning of the ‘Age of Plastics’. Baekeland’s practical creativity had a huge
impact on the industries covered by SCI, leading to the development of the
vast polymeric materials sector.
His industrial application of scientific research and his use of SCI connections
to arrange world-wide manufacture and distribution of the resulting products
are examples of the ethos at the heart of SCI.
Baekeland received many honours and awards, including the SCI America
Perkin Medal in 1916. An SCI lecture is held in his honour every four years.