Thursday, 21 February 2019

Plastics at War

MoDiP is proud to be able to contribute to TheGallery, AUB, exhibition Dazzle & The Art of Defence

Following AUB’s collaborative contribution to Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art, curated by James Taylor and held at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington, this major new exhibition contextualises the artist Norman Wilkinson’s First World War ‘Dazzle’ schemes of disruptive camouflage against the wider contribution of the arts and creative industries to the defence of Britain in wartime.

Reflecting on the roles of photographers, artists, graphic designers, acknowledgement, and fashion designers during both World Wars, the exhibition includes paintings by the Dazzle artists Norman Wilkinson, Cecil King and Leonard Campbell Taylor, as well as scenes of Dazzled boats captured by John Everett and Geoffrey Allfree; wartime information posters by Abram Games and Eileen Evans, uniform fashion photography by Cecil Beaton; and models, photographs and costumes made by the staff and students from BA (Hons) Modelmaking, BA (Hons) Fashion, BA (Hons) Costume and Performance Design and MoDiP.

MoDiP recently acquired the cockpit canopy from a Hawker Sea Fury.  The canopy is thermoformed from a single piece of polymethyl methacrylate, also known as acrylic and we think it looks very handsome on display.

MoDiP’s Hawker Sea Fury cockpit canopy on display in Dazzle & The Art of Defence, TheGallery, AUB.  AIBDC : 008190

In 1936, the Supermarine Spitfire took its first flight. Its iconic bubble canopy, which led the way for other fighter planes, such as the Hawker Sea Fury, stood it apart from anything that had been before.

Supermarine Spitfire.  © IWM (CNA 2220)

Hawker Sea Fury FB 11 © IWM (ATP 16371F)
Hawker Sea Fury, October 1951, on board the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle © IWM (A 32015A) 

The earliest planes had open cockpits exposing the pilot to the elements.  In the First World War, glass windscreens were used to protect the pilot from the turbulent air created by the propeller.  As planes became faster and flew higher, enclosed cockpits became necessary to protect the pilot from atmospheric pressure.

Cockpit canopies were originally made of small panes of flat glass held within a rigid framework that interfered with the pilot’s field of vision.  The transparent acrylic bubble canopy was lighter than glass, and could support its own shape without any additional framework, providing good all-round visibility.  The production of these canopies was simpler than glass.  The acrylic was shipped to the plane manufacturers in flat sheets where it was heated and moulded to shape.  This avoided the inevitable breakages that occurred during the transit of large, heavy, awkward shaped glass.

The First World War saw much energy put into the development of new materials, especially plastics, and as such, the roles that plastics played in the defence of the country during the Second World War were many and varied. Plastics were seen as essential to the war effort; with the scarcity of natural materials, all sides focused their development of plastics into their use in conflict.

One significant outcome of this development work was the introduction and use of plastics in military aircraft.  The diagram below depicts just a few of the sections of a plane that could be made of plastics during the 1940s.  Other uses included polyethylene to provide electrical insulation for airborne radar systems and polyamide (nylon) for parachutes, an alternative to the unavailable Japanese silk.

Plastics parts on airplanes from Plastics in American Aircraft, British Plastics and Moulded Products Trader, February 1942.

Plastics were used over other materials for a number of reasons, but most significantly for the fact that they could do a better job.  A fuel tank supporting rib made of metal, if hit by a bullet, would be torn into large fragments with the potential to penetrate the tank and cause a fuel leak.  If the framework was to be made of a synthetic material instead it would shatter on impact into relatively small pieces.  These small pieces would then have insufficient power to cause further damage.  The use of plastics in the casings of electrical equipment, such as radios, helped to reduce the total weight of the plane itself meaning that it could carry more troops, more bombs, or more essential equipment.

Plastics were not only vital to the military war effort; they played significant roles in the domestic lives of the people. Find out more about some of the impact plastics had at home in the pop-up exhibition Plastics & the home front at the Museum of Design in Plastics (MoDiP) on the first floor of the AUB library.

Louise Dennis (Curator of MoDiP)

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