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Get along to a new Science Museum exhibition and see some wonders of plastic

By Hamish Champ
Posted 10 November 2011

Once in a while an exhibition opens that deserves to be booked solid from the moment it starts to the day it closes.

Hidden Heroes, which runs at the Science Museum in London from 9 November until 5 June next year, is just such an event.

Examining the background of 44 everyday objects that most – if not all – of us take for granted, it looks like being a corker. I for one am hooked.

Along with the coat hanger, the thermos flask and the tea bag the exhibition looks at some iconic plastic (and rubber) products. You might already know the origins of some of these but still, I thought I’d highlight a few…

Bubblewrap: In the 1950s engineer Marc Chavannes was looking to develop wallpaper with a textured plastic surface. While on a plane that was coming in to land he noticed clouds appearing to cushion the aircraft. He later claimed this image gave him the idea for using air, sealed within plastic, as a packaging material….

Tupperware: A combination of the right invention at the right time and canny marketing, Tupperware was the brainchild of Earl Tupper. The owner of a US plastics company, Tupper invented a pliable, airtight and waterproof polyethylene lid for food bowls in 1949. However things really kicked off when Brownie Wise, one of Tupper’s staff, suggested marketing the company’s products directly. Thus we got Tupperware parties…

Lego: Company founder Ole Kirk Christiansen originally made his Lego (from the Danish words ‘leg’ and ‘godt’: ‘play well’) from wood. While exploring alternative new materials in 1947 he bought Denmark’s first injection moulding machine and the first Lego brick was produced two years later, with what we now recognise as Lego appearing in 1958…

Multipack carrier: The problem of how to carry six beer cans as cheaply as possible was solved by Ougljese Jules Pouitch, of the Illinois Tool Works, in the late 1950s. According to the Hidden Heroes exhibition he was the first person to recognise plastic’s potential as an elastic material which could ultimately be used as a minimalist packaging solution…

Condom: While the condom has been around in one form or another since the 16th century, and quite possibly a lot further back than that, it was apparently revolutionised by the invention of vulcanised rubber. In 1855 Charles Goodyear unveiled – if that is the right word – the first rubber condom and by 1870 it was ready for consumers. At two millimetres thick, it wasn’t until 1900 that a process involving glass rods dipped into a latex solution managed to come up with a thinner and more, er, user-friendly version.

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