Commercializing plastic glass

In the early 1930s, William Chalmers, PhD’30, devised a new method for producing an important but scarce ingredient of plastic “glass”: methyl methacrylate.

Using two readily available materials – acetone and hydrogen cyanide – Chalmers was able to produce this substance in large quantities, enabling the mass commercialization of plastic glass in America and Britain.

Chalmers filed patents for his invention while working as a graduate student in McGill Chemistry professor George Whitby’s lab. Knowing that Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in Britain was looking for solutions to scale up production of plastic glass, Chalmers sold them his patents.

In 1936, ICI began producing their plastic glass product — Perspex — using Chalmers’ methods. As the American & British equivalent to the German’s Plexiglas, Perspex was a vital material for wartime efforts. Originally used to make shatter-proof windshields in airplanes, turrets and cars, Perspex is still in production today.