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Polyethylene synthesis

accidental discovery became one of the world's most used plastics North West,

Three women stand by a table admiring a pile of Tupperware.
Tupperware party, 1963. NMeM/Daily Herald Archive/SSPL

This polymer was discovered in March 1933, when Reginald Gibson (1902-83) and Eric Fawcett (1908-87) of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Cheshire, heated a mixture of ethylene and benzaldehyde to a temperature of 170 degrees Celsius. 

Following the experiment, Gibson and Fawcett were surprised to see a waxy substance in the reaction tube. They had inadvertently discovered a new plastic. However it was not until 1937 that they scaled up production in a pilot plant. 

The first plant came into operation in September 1939. Its resultant product, named ‘Polythene’ by ICI, was to have a major impact on the war effort, being a superb insulator used in, for example, submarine cables and radar applications. 

The discovery was kept secret during the war, but with peace declared it was used to produce domestic items. American businessman Earl Tupper developed a range of polyethylene containers and these were marketed directly to women at ‘Tupperware parties’. Today polyethylene continues to be used in packaging and in a multitude of plastic goods. 

Science Museum

Decade
Type
Chemistry,
Region
North West
Location
ICI Winnington Research Laboratory, Cheshire
Key Individuals
Reginald Gibson, Eric Fawcett, Imperial Chemical Industries,