Gibson, R.O.

Gibson, R.O.
fl. 1920s–30s
English chemist who, with E.O.Fawcett, discovered polythene.
Dr Gibson's work towards the discovery of polythene had its origin in a visit in 1925 to Dr A. Michels of Amsterdam University; the latter had made major advances in techniques for studying chemical reactions at very high pressures. After working with Michels for a time, in 1926 Gibson joined Brunner Mond, one of the companies that went on to form the chemical giant Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). The company supported research into fundamental chemical research that had no immediate commercial application, including the field being cultivated by Michels and Gibson. In 1933 Gibson was joined by another ICI chemist, E.O.Fawcett, who had worked with W.H. Carothers in the USA on polymer chemistry. They were asked to study the effects of high pressure on various reaction systems, including a mixture of benzaldehyde and ethylene. Gibson's notebook for 27 March that year records that after a loss of pressure during which the benzaldehyde was blown out of the reaction tube, a waxy solid was observed in the tube. This is generally recognized as the first recorded observation of polythene. By the following June they had shown that the white, waxy solid was a fairly high molecular weight polymer of ethylene formed at a temperature of 443°K and a pressure of 2,000 bar. However, only small amounts of the material were produced and its significance was not immediately recognized. It was not until two years later that W.P.Perrin and others, also ICI chemists, restarted work on the polymer. They showed that it could be moulded, drawn into threads and cast into tough films. It was a good electrical insulator and almost inert chemically. A British patent for producing polythene was taken out in 1936, and after further development work a production plant began operating in September 1939, just as the Second World War was breaking out. Polythene had arrived in time to make a major contribution to the war effort, for it had the insulating properties required for newly developing work on radar. When peacetime uses became possible, polythene production surged ahead and became the major industry it is today, with a myriad uses in industry and in everyday life.
1964, The Discovery of Polythene, Royal Institute of Chemistry Lecture Series 1, London.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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