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History of the World: the first piece of polythene
A sample of the first ton of polythene with George Feachem's initials.
A sample of the first ton of polythene with George Feachem's initials

Supermarkets love it. Environmentalists hate it. And almost everyone uses it.

Polythene is the world's most popular plastic and is used to make billions of carrier bags each year.

Yet it was first discovered, by accident, at a Cheshire chemical plant near Northwich.

Now, the story of polythene, and its role in saving thousand of lives in World War II, is revealed thanks to one man's secret keepsake now included in the BBC's History of the World.

Discovery

In 1933, a team of chemists at the ICI Wallerscote plant near Northwich were working on polymers when an experiment went strangely wrong.

A white, waxy residue was produced - not the intended result - which turned out to be polyethylene, better known as polythene.

George Feachem, a young chemist, was on duty that night and witnessed this discovery; he could not have imagined the impact it was to have on the world - both for good and for bad.

George Feachem
He was obviously a very modest man because my grandmother didn't even know it was there
Chris Browning, grandson of George Feachem

George died in the late 1970s.

But it wasn't until 2009 that his family discovered a small, triangular, plastic medallion inside an old wallet they found in a drawer of his possessions.

Intriguingly, it was inscribed with the date 'Dec 1938' and attached to a small brass clasp engraved with his initials, 'G.F.'

After making enquiries, they found that George's secret keepsake was a sample of the first ton of polythene ever produced and presented to the team that perfected the technique.

George's grandson Chris Browning has now submitted the first piece of polythene to the BBC History of the World project in recognition of his grandfather's work.

"He was obviously a very modest man because my grandmother [Margaret Greenhow] didn't even know it was there," he said

"The triangle sat in the wallet, in his back pocket, and then in a drawer for nearly 70 years until we found it last year."

"I think it's touching to think that this discovery meant so much to him at the time that he kept this memento, not hidden away, but in his wallet, on his person for all those years."

Hula hoop

The discovery of polythene is attributed to two scientists - Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson - who first produced it by accident in 1933.

It took five years for ICI to consistently reproduce the chemistry and, as ICI records reveal, the first item ever made from polythene was a 'cream-coloured walking stick.'

ICI notes on polythene
ICI records reveal the day polythene was discovered

By 1938, ICI finally perfected the technique to allow production of this versatile plastic on an industrial scale.

It proved a timely breakthrough. By the start of World War II, large plants were busy producing large quantities of this new substance which proved invaluable to the war effort.

Polythene was used as an insulating material for radar cables during World War II, and the substance was a closely guarded secret.

Its availability gave Britain an advantage in long-distance air warfare, most significantly in the Battle of the Atlantic, against the German submarines which threatened to starve Britain of food.

After the War, polythene was produced commercially and was the raw material of the 'hula hoop', the worldwide craze of the 1950s.

Today, it's used widely in the manufacture of food packaging, carrier bags, plastic pipes, electrical cable insulation and even artificial hips.

However, because it takes several centuries to biodegrade, polythene is loathed by environmentalists and the polythene bag has become a symbol of Man's pollution of the planet.

Despite this, Chris Browning is still hugely proud of his grandfather and those scientists in Northwich.

"I don't think anyone on the team could have imagined the billions of supermarket carrier bags around the world, he said.

"But he helped to develop something that probably saved countless lives in the War, and that's worth remembering."




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