Adding a Little Zazz


I was watching satire of a magician and got curious about the invention of flash paper. Who created it? Was it made for the express purpose of allowing an illusionist to scare the shit out of/surprise people back in the black and white days?

I quickly discovered that the actual name of flash paper is nitrocellulose. I had heard the term before, but never looked further into it. It was created in 1855 by Alexander Parkes and was the first man-made plastic. He patented it in 1862 (I couldn’t find a reason for why the 7 year gap occurred). Parkes was a metallurgist as well as being an inventor. He created a method to extract silver from lead ore, cold vulcanization (waterproofing fabrics with rubber & carbon disulfide), a material dubbed Parkesine (made from chloroform & castor oil) that was flexible will being hard, and did electroplating (adhering metals to an object via electricity). He even electroplated a friggin’ spiderweb! Bananas.

But, back to nitrocellulose. Cellulose (the main component of plant fiber cell walls and vegetable fibers), such as cotton, gets treated with nitric acid and a solvent. This creates a highly flammable polymer (flash paper!). If it gets mixed with other substances, it can be used for handles on tools, lacquers, printing inks, varnishes, adhesives, sealants, and artificial jewelry. And, when squished together with camphor oil, it becomes celluloid and was used as motion picture film. It was still highly flammable, but could hold an image like no other.

There’s no way that Parkes could predict so many uses and developments for his creation. But, I sure hope he would’ve liked magicians using it.

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