ICI Exhibition Booklet - Flipbook - Page 11
Materials World: 1930s and beyond
‘Today you have soft seats all over the house; when I was a lad, you didn’t. They were too
expensive, or they didn’t last, or the springs came through’
– Reg Hurd, ICI chemist, on flexible foams
Perspex: from Spitfires to Bathtubs, strenthening links between research, production, and sales
Despite the discovery of polythene in 1933, ICI’s plastics division was still in its infancy at the outbreak of the First World War, with only one
product of real promise in production: transparent sheets made from polymerised methyl methacrylate (MMA) or ‘Perspex’. Its famous wartime
role as the material for aircraft canopies was in fact the spur for its invention. In the early 1930s, the designer of the new fighter plane was
looking for a suitable transparent material for the cockpit canopy.
‘Glass was suicidal and celluloid had terrible problems of opacity’
– Reginald Mitchell, Spitfire designer
MMA was a known substance at this time but its production was expensive and difficult. Its commerical viability only came about because
of a synthetic pathway developed by ICI chemist, Dr John Crawford, working in the explosives divsion at Ardeer in 1932 (although it was
an abandoned works hockey game on a rainy Saturday afternoon that led to success in his own garden shed!). Perspex was registered on 16
November 1934 and first incorporated into the new Spitfire in 1936. The war brought about a transformation in the coordination of ICI’s plastics
industry, with Perspex manufacture beginning in 1937 at Billingham. 50 tonnes were produced and a gross trading profit of £6,000 made,
roughly one third of the total profit for all ICI plastics. As the threat of war increased, so did ICI’s efforts to bring all its plastics operations under
one umbrella, formally constituting the Plastics Group in March 1938. Plastics were finally recognised as the basis for profitable businesses.
At the end of the war, the demand for Perspex fell and ICI had to re-evaluate its resources. It soon became apparent that the only way to establish
a place for Perspex was to use ICI’s vast research, production, and sales resources to enable the product’s development into emerging post war
markets. Perspex was marketed ‘as you like it’ – to be reformed by the buyer to the purpose. The Royal College of Art was contracted to ‘produce
ideas for the further exploitation of Perspex as a medium for signs’, creating a myriad of new uses, from light fittings to sculptures.
The first Perspex baths were conceived in Australia in 1948; although the legend in the trade is that the idea came about during the war when
a soldier inverted a Spitfire canopy and used it it to bathe himself!
Refrideration revolution: MDI foams
Rigid foams were initially used during the war for insulation of rockets,
aircraft and vehicles, in the form of TDI foams – a highly toxic material.
The toxicity problem was circumvented in the 1950s by ICI’s Reg Hurd,
working with the Dyestuffs group. Hurd proved that MDI could be made
into a non-toxic foam – previously believed to be impossible – to replace
The timing of the discovery was crucial, as the world was beginning a
boom in refrigeration of cargo ships, creating a need for improved
insulation. MDI met the requirements and revolutionised refridgeration,
expanding the availablity of food worldwide and transforming home
The first polyester: Terylene
Polyester, the synthetic fibre that opened
for an ‘easy care’ revolution in clothing, was
presented to ICI in 1941 by two chemists from a
small Manchester company, the Calico Printers’
ICI recoginised its potential, despite intially being
presented with ‘just a few grams of dirty looking stuff
Teryelene pushed ICI into the fibres business. That
move, in combination with the plastics industry,
transformed British society in the 1950s and 1960s.
Multiple SCI members in the materials world also have connections with
ICI, including Sir Geoffrey Allen, SCI President 1989–1991.
Dr John Crawford, who enabled the commercialisation of Perspex, published
numerous works through SCI, including his 1945 paper on ‘The production
of substituted acrylic acids from keton cyanohydrides’. In retirement, Dr
Crawford was sought after by a major American plastics corporation for
assistance with a new manfucturing plant. After being repeatedly asked to
join the project, he gave his final answer: ‘No, I’ve got a fence to build!’.