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  • This timeline lets you see aspects of Alan's life and work, and how these fit into a wider science picture of chemistry. A full transcript is underneath.

    Alan MacDiarmid – chemist

    • Changing scientific ideas
    • Advances in science and technology
    • Biography


    Changing scientific ideas

    Each specialised field of science has key ideas and ways of doing things. Over time, these ideas and techniques can be revised or replaced in the light of new research. Most changes to key science ideas are only accepted gradually, tested through research by many people.

    Advances in science and technology

    All scientists build their research and theories on the knowledge of earlier scientists, and their work will inform other scientists in the future. A scientist may publish hundreds of scientific reports, but only a few are mentioned here.


    This part of the timeline outlines just a few events in the personal life of the featured person, some of which influenced their work as a scientist.


    1800 – Metal conducts electricity

    During the 1800s metals are found to be good at carrying (conducting) electricity.

    Early 1900 – Plastics do not conduct electricity

    In the early 1900s plastics are developed. They do not conduct electricity, so are used as insulators. The idea that metals are conductors of electricity while plastics are non-conductors is maintained into the 1970s.

    1960 – Non-metals can be semiconductors

    In the 1960s scientists accept that some organic molecules can be weak semiconductors – they can conduct electricity only under certain conditions.

    1976 – Plastics can conduct electricity

    The work of Alan MacDiarmid and colleagues shows that polyacetylene can conduct electricity almost as well as metallic copper. The conducting plastics revolution is born.

    2000 – Plastics used as conductors

    Plastics are used as conductors, especially in new electronic technologies during the 2000s.
    Image: Queen’s University


    1729 – Discovery of conduction of electricity

    Stephen Gray makes early discoveries about electrical conduction and insulation.
    Image: John Jenkins, Spark Museum

    1747 – Differences in conductivity of materials

    Henry Cavendish measures the conductivity of different materials.
    Image: Public domain

    1800 – Electricity travels along wires

    Alessandro Volta proves that electricity can travel along wires.
    Image: Public domain

    1862 – First man-made plastic created

    The first man-made plastic is created by Alexander Parkes. It is an organic material derived from cellulose.

    1862 – Conductive material made, but not recognised

    Henry Letheby obtains a partly conductive material (polyaniline) from organic aniline. Although a conducting polymer, it is not recognised as such.

    1899 – Plastic first used for electrical insulation

    Arthur Smith develops partially synthetic plastic resins for use in electrical insulation.

    Early 1900 – Early polymers not recognised as conducting

    In the early 1900s German chemists name polyaniline compounds ‘aniline black’ and ‘pyrrole black’ and use them industrially. They are conducting polymers but are not recognised as such.

    1907 – Bakelite used as electrical insulator

    Leo Baekeland invents the first truly synthetic plastic – Bakelite. It is used as an electrical insulator.
    Image: Public domain

    1930 – Many different plastics made

    The next 25 years from 1930 sees the development of many kinds of plastics.
    Image: ImGz, Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0

    1950 – Some organic compounds can carry electricity

    In the 1950s polycyclic aromatic compounds are found (under certain conditions) to carry current, indicating that organic compounds can carry current.

    1963 – High conductivity in polymers reported

    B Bolto, D Weiss and co-workers report high conductivity in polymers ‘doped’ by having iodine added to help electrons to move.

    1974 – Organic polymer electronic device reported

    An organic polymer electronic switch developed by John McGinness and co-workers is reported in the journal Science.

    1976 – Major advance in conducting polymers

    Alan MacDiarmid, Alan Heegar and Hideki Shirakawa report high conductivity in iodine or bromine-doped polyacetylene.
    Image: Department of Physics & Astronomy, Seoul National University

    1976 – Conducting polymers ​gain attention

    From 1976 a floodgate of research is opened – many researchers continue to probe the promising field of organic conducting polymers.

    2000 – Development of new technologies

    The 2000s see conducting polymers at heart of flat-screen video displays, sensors, medical implants, solar cells, flexible electronic circuitry.
    Image: imec

    2011 – Plastic packages become computers?

    Scientists explore possibilities of plastic packages tracking the process of contents (replacing the barcode) and determining, for example, the expiry date of a product (the bag turns black).


    1927 – Alan MacDiarmid born in Masterton

    Alan Graham MacDiarmid is born in Masterton, New Zealand. He is one of five children.

    1930s – Moves to Lower Hutt

    In the 1930s life in Masterton is difficult due to the Great Depression so the family moves to Lower Hutt.
    Image: J.C. Beaglehole Room, Victoria University Library. Reference: 2010/10 3 Item 97

    1937 – Teaches himself chemistry

    At about 10 years of age, he develops an interest in chemistry from one of his father’s old textbooks – he teaches himself about chemistry from this and other library books.

    1940 – New Zealand education

    During the 1940s he attends Hutt Valley High school for 3 years – leaves at age 16 and attends Victoria University. Has a part-time job as a ‘lab boy’/janitor to support himself. Completes a BSc and MSc.

    1949 – Attraction to colour and chemicals

    Publishes his first paper in the scientific journal Nature, on the chemistry of S4N4. The bright orange crystals attract him to colour, a key factor that shapes his professional life.

    1950 – Life at University of Wisconsin

    Receives a Fulbright Fellowship from the USA to do a PhD at the University of Wisconsin majoring in inorganic chemistry. Becomes president of the International Club and is elected Knapp Research Fellow. Meets Marian Mathieu.

    1953 – Attends Cambridge University

    Wins a New Zealand Shell graduate scholarship to complete a second PhD at Cambridge University, England.

    1954 – Marriage

    Marries Marian.

    1955 – First job – Scotland

    Takes up a position for a short time as a junior faculty member at Queen’s College of the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

    1955 – 45 years at University of Pennsylvania

    Accepts a junior position on the faculty of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania where he lives for the next 45 years. He is father to three daughters and a son and later grandfather to nine grandchildren.
    Image: Marguerite F. Miller

    1971 – Award in silicon chemistry

    Awarded the American Chemical Society Frederic Stanley Kipping Award in Silicon Chemistry.

    1975 – The discovery begins

    Asked by Alan Heegar (physicist at the University of Pennsylvania) to join him in developing (SN)x – a conducting polymer – because Heegar knows MacDiarmid had made the precursor S4N4. They co-author many papers.

    1975 – Further discovery

    Meets Hideki Shirakawa (who had accidently produced a conducting polymer) in Japan and invites him to come to Pennsylvania for a year to work on conducting polymers.

    1975 – Development of conducting polymers

    Collaborates with Heegar and Shirakawa to develop a method of doping that increases conductivity of polyacetylene (an organic polymer) 10 million fold, making it as good as that of metallic copper. (Photo taken in 2000)
    Image: MacDiarmid Institute

    1977 – Collaboration for development and applications

    From 1977 to 2000 Alan works extensively on developing and maintaining collaborations with numerous research groups around the world focused on the understanding (physics), development (chemistry) and applications (engineering) of conducting polymers.

    1999 – Honorary doctorate

    Awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Victoria.

    2000 – Joint Nobel prize in chemistry

    With Alan Heegar and Hideki Shirakawa, awarded Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery and development of conducting polymers.
    Image: MacDiarmid Institute

    2001 – ONZ and Chair in Chemistry

    Appointed a Member of the Order of New Zealand (ONZ). The University of Victoria creates the Alan MacDiarmid Chair in Chemistry.

    2002 – Formation of MacDiarmid Institute in New Zealand

    MacDiarmid Institute is formed in 2002. It involves a number of universities and institutes collaborating together researching materials science and nanotechnology. The Institute is hosted by Victoria University of Wellington.

    2002 – An ambassador for science

    Spends next 5 years travelling around the world and speaking – an ambassador for science.
    Image: MacDiarmid Institute

    2007 – Dies at age 79

    Dies at age 79 after a fall down some stairs while preparing to travel to New Zealand, where he was to give a lecture on non-polluting renewable energy.

    Rights: Universtiy of Waikato Published 31 January 2012, Updated 15 September 2017 Referencing Hub media
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