Chapter 9 Notes

Fiji – Abel Tasman, the distinguished Dutch Navigator, was the first European to discover Fiji on February 6, 1643. In 1774 Captain James Cook sighted Vatoa, or Turtle Island, from the deck of HMS Resolution. The full extent of the archipelago was only charted later by an irascible lieutenant of Cook’s: Lieutenant William Bligh, after the infamous mutiny.

William Bligh was the first European to fully chart the Fiji chain of islands when he sailed through them in 1789 in what still ranks as one of the finest feats of seamanship, ever. He sailed a small boat, overloaded with men and short on provisions, about four thousand miles across open water. It took them forty-one days and when they arrived in New Holland, on the west coast of Australia, they looked so worn and sick that the women who saw them burst into tears. In his official account of the mutiny, he said that the men preferred to be treated like kings by the women of Tahiti, than to work for His Majesty onboard a ship. Not surprisingly, the Lords of the Admiralty believed him.

He had an understated style of writing. The day the mutineers cast him adrift, he said, ‘we bore away across a sea where the navigation is but little known, in a small boat, twenty-three feet long from stem to stern, deep laden with eighteen men. I was happy, however, to see that everyone seemed better satisfied with our situation than myself.’

And in another passage: ‘At daybreak the gale increased; the sun rose very fiery and red, a sure indication of a severe gale of wind. At eight it blew a violent storm, and the sea ran very high, so that between the seas the sail was becalmed, and when on the top of the sea it was too much to have set; but we could not venture to take in the sail, for we were in very imminent danger and distress, the sea curling over the stern of the boat, which obliged us to bale with all our might. A situation more distressing has, perhaps, seldom been experienced.’

Charles Darwin followed Bligh in his voyages on HMS Adventure and Beagle, between 1826 and 1836

The story of Plastics owes its life to an accident. A man named Alexander Parkes had cut himself and was looking for collodion in his medicine cabinet. He discovered that contact with the air had gelled it into a strong, flexible substance.

After many experiments (the mixtures would explode when heated), he finally produced a compound of collodion, camphor, and ethanol, which he called Parkesine. Until this moment in our development we had made our tools and textiles exclusively from materials found in nature: clay and wood, animal skins and bones, metal and cotton, wool, leather, fur and silk. Parkesine was thus the first manufactured material, but as it was made from elements found in nature, it was not a synthetic material.

Some might argue that the prize for the first man-made substance should go to Bronze, traditionally an alloy of about 8 parts of Copper to 1 of Tin, as it is known to have been used for 3,000 years. I awarded Parkesine the prize however, as Bronze was still a metal, while Parkes’ compound was a new material with very different properties.

Across the Atlantic in 1867, the identical accident would save thousands of elephants: the game of billiards had become so popular that hundreds of elephants were being killed, to turn their tusks into billiard balls. An American, John Wesley Hyatt, spilled a bottle of collodion in his workshop, discovered the same substance that Parkes’ discovered and eventually produced billiard balls using collodion as a substitute for ivory. Unfortunately the mixture was still volatile and the balls exploded on contact with each other. Hyatt too found that adding camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree, solved the problem and he called his material Celluloid.

The title for the world’s first totally synthetic substance goes to Bakelite, invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a New York chemist. Next was Cellophane invented by Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, a Swiss textile engineer, who thought of the idea in 1900, but needed 13 years to develop the first fully flexible, waterproof covering.

In 1935 a Dupont chemist called Wallace Carothers produced what he called Fiber 66, later known as Nylon (the stockings replaced silk versions in 1939), and Waldo Semon, a B.F. Goodrich organic chemist, invented polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or vinyl. In 1933, Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker, accidentally discovered yet another plastic — polyvinylidene chloride, better known today as Saran and in 1938 a Dupont chemist named Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon. Many of these developments, along with corresponding advances in engineering skills, led to the development of the first Zip-Loc™ bag.