Starlite — Miracle Plastic or Hoax?

In 1993, British science television show Tomorrow’s World featured a demonstration of a plastic compound created by Maurice Ward that had apparently amazing properties.

In the demonstration (viewable on YouTube), an oxyacetylene torch is used to scorch an egg coated in Ward’s Starlite for several minutes. Not only does the Starlite-coated egg not catch on fire, but after the test the egg’s yolk is completely raw, suggesting that the substance also acts as an insulator.

Other than the television demonstrations, Starlite vanished from the public. Investors, companies and even government agencies were supposedly interested in the substance (though the evidence of that came from Ward or close associates), but Ward refused to share either the formula for Starlite or reach any sort of licensing agreement for the substance.

Ward died in 2011, apparently taking the “secret” to Starlite with him.

One of the things that sets Starlite apart from similar fantastical claims is that new outlets reported Starlite had been tested by military and government agencies, which generally corroborated the claims of Starlite’s capabilities. But if you read those reports closely, it appears that Ward himself was generally the main source for such claims.

The Telegraph, for example, reported in 2009,

In tests at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, Starlite was pulsed with lasers that would normally have burned through polymer. Instead, as [Pamela] Pohling-Brown reported in a widely-read article in International Defence Review in 1993, ‘Starlite showed little damage to the surface, merely small pits with the approximate diameter of the beam and with little evidence of melting.’ Professor Keith Lewis, who led the RSRE tests, confirms that Starlite ‘had unique properties which appeared to be very different to other forms of thermal barrier material available at the time.’ It wasn’t clear how Starlite worked: was it diffusing the heat? Absorbing it? Repelling it? ‘Keith Lewis told me that it does all sorts of things,’ says Ward. ‘It’s very complex. Millions of things are happening all at once.’

But as someone looking into this at Stack Exchange, noted:

  1. The Royal Signals and Radar Establishment didn’t exist in 1993. It was was rolled into the UK’s Defence Research Agency. The DRA does not appear to have any records of such a Starlite test.
  2. The Keith Lewis who supposedly led those RSRE tests does not appear to exist.

If you read the articles mentioning the supposed RSRE tests and Keith Lewis’ comments on Starlite, it appears initially that the Telegraph is providing independent confirmation of such tests. But if you read them carefully and compare to other articles on Starlite (such as this one), it soon becomes clear that Ward himself was almost certainly the source of these claims.

Pamela Pohling-Brown, who helped kicked off serious interest in Starlite with a 1993 article on it in International Defense Review, stuck by her reporting as late as 2009. But her explanation of the RSRE test results and other parts of the story only reinforce that this was a likely hoax (emphasis added),

However, we did consider that we had a scoop on Starlite and that nothing much had emerged in the public domain before that. The person who drew my attention to it was Professor Sir Ronald Mason, an impeccable source as well as a good friend and contact of many years’ standing. The sources who supplied the test results were also unimpeachable. I was unable to witness a test, for obvious reasons, but did talk to Maurice Ward at some length and formed the opinion that his claims were to be taken seriously, but that he was a true English eccentric.

. . .

Sir Ronald Mason is still active and a still a respected scientist and both I and my then editor, Rupert Pengelley, still have our wits about us. I always hoped to see the material in use as, to the best of my knowledge, it would revolutionise safety in many many walks of life. I fear, however, that it may have now somehow been classified and indeed possibly suppressed if it renders some current project/research area null; this was another of Maurice’s fears and I have little doubt that he only agreed to our publishing anything at the time because he thought that some measure of public attention would make suppression by whatever body less easy. At the time we joked about “The Man in the White Suit” —a British film of the 1950s.

Unimpeachable sources? Sounds like Ward was very good at turning otherwise skeptical people into believers who let down their guard for his fantastic tale.

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