NotesPlastics have a significant impact on our daily lives and have been influential in the construction of modern society. They are used to produce familiar products such as toothbrushes and toasters as well as incubators and body parts that help save lives. Plastics have enabled industry to produce products more economically and efficiently and artists have used them to create striking jewellery and works of art.
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. In Australia there was scepticism about the virtues of plastics, however in the late 1800s some plastic products such as table tennis balls were being imported (Fahey, 1989).
The foundations for the twentieth century plastics industry lie with inventors such as Thomas Hancock (vulcanite), François Charles Lepage (bois durci) and Alexander Parkes (Parkesine). These inventions replaced traditional materials such as wood or metal, that were sturdy, but time consuming and expensive to produce and decorate. Colin Williamson writes that, 'This facility to produce moulded products more quickly and therefore more cheaply than their carved counterpart is the prime motivating force behind the development of plastics and the plastic industry as we know them today.'(Williamson, 1994)
New materials were required to meet the needs of the technological developments occurring in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The invention of Bakelite between 1907 and 1909 was ideal for the purposes of the emerging electrical and automobile industries. It was invented by Leo Baekeland and was the first fully synthetic plastic to be produced. Plastics became a thriving industry after World War Two with the growth in consumer goods and rising mass production and consumption.
The Australian plastics processing industry began around 1917 and didn't grow significantly until 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 (Chemlink Consultants, 1997). This growth was the result of new innovations in plastics, a rising population and increasing home ownership and household consumption. Today the plastics industry is one of Australia's largest manufacturing sectors.
There is a long history dating back to at least 300 BCE (a bronze Roman Capua leg) of the use of functional prothesis. Evidence has recently been found that it may date back even further. In 2000 an Egyptian mummy was found with an artificial toe made of wood and leather. This mummy dates back to 1069 to 664 BCE and the artificial toe is worn and has joints in three places. (Choi, 2007).
Before prostheses made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for areas such as the face and hands, ' ... vulcanite, latex, and gelatin and glue mixtures had been tried for these prostheses but they were deficient in several aspects.' (Worner, 1946) These earlier materials were not flexible enough. Trials were carried out to test various types of synthetic plastics, however, polyvinyl resins proved the most successful.
Henri Victor Regnault accidentally discovered the polymerisation of vinyl chloride in 1838. In the early twentieth century attempts were made to use PVC in commercial applications, however they failed. It wasn't until Waldo Semon, who worked for B. F. Goodrich, blended PVC with additives in 1926 that PVC became commercially viable. The end product was easy to process and more flexible (Purmova, 2007). It was first widely used in World War Two to insulate wires in electrical cables when there was a shortage of rubber.
When products made of PVC became available in the 1940s and 1950s this material was considered to be outstanding. Penfold wrote in 1945 that vinyls were: ' ... probably the most versatile of all plastics.' (Penfold, 1945) He later wrote that: 'Polyvinyl chloride has few equals as an electric insulator, and finds extensive use as a substitute for rubber, and as water and oil resistant coating material.' (Penfold, 1956)
PVC continues to be widely used especially in the construction market. However, today some people consider PVC hazardous to health and the environment. They argue that PVC plants emit toxic pollution during its production and that products made of PVC emit toxic compounds during their usage and in disposal. This is due to toxic chemicals added to it in production. Those working in the vinyl industry have produced research that suggests that PVC is not harmful to people.
These prostheses were donated to the Museum in 1954.
Arthur Penfold, Plastics and Synthetic Fibres, A. H. Pettifer, Government Printer, Sydney, 1956, p.19.
Arthur Penfold, 'Report on Plastics Investigation, 1945 in the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom', Sydney Technological Museum Memorandum, Sydney, 1945, p.5.
C. Williamson, "Victorian Plastics - Foundations of an Industry" in S.T.I. Mossman and P.J.T. Morris (eds.), The Development of Plastics, Redwood Books, Great Britain, 1994, p.4
Charles Choi, 'World's First Prosthetic: Egyptian Mummy's Fake Toe', Live Science available at: www.livescience.com/history/070727_old_toe.html, viewed 26/9/07.
Chemlink Consultants, Australia's Chemical Industry - History and development, available at http://www.chemlink.com.au/chemhist.htm, 1997, accessed 08/08/2007.
Howard Worner, 'Plastics in Dentistry and Surgery', Australian PLASTICS, April 1946.
J.Purmova, Dissertations of the University of Groningen, http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/FILES/faculties/science/2007/j.purmova/chapter_1.pdf, accessed 26/09/07.
K. Fahey, 'An Island of Plastics': Processing in the 1980s, The Editors Desk Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1989, p.25.