Leo Baekeland: The father of the Plastic Age
Many of us take it for granted today. We normally don’t give it a second thought, but you can find it in nearly all aspects of daily life.
Used to make everything from toothbrushes and disposable razors to televisions, radios, household appliances, cars, toys, bottles, even lightweight firearms, plastic is arguably the most important synthetic material ever formulated. And ironically, the inventor of this revolutionary product has faded into obscurity, eclipsed by his own brilliant creation.
Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863, Leo Baekeland was a man of humble origins and great intelligence.
Drawn to the sciences
The son of a shoemaker and house maid, he possessed a natural inclination for the sciences, especially chemistry. Unlike the majority of those within his social class, Baekeland attended school regularly and was a superlative student.
At 17, he graduated with honors from the Ghent Municipal Technical School, winning a scholarship to study at the University of Ghent. Just four years later, he had earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and remained on campus as an associate professor.
In addition to teaching physics and chemistry, Baekeland began his own scientific research. In 1887, he’d reached his first milestone as an inventor when he patented a photo-developing process that used water in place of noxious chemicals.
With this feather in his hat, he traveled to New York City, where he met Richard Anthony of the famed E. and H.T. Anthony photographic company. Immediately, Anthony recognized his talent and offered him a job as a chemist with the firm.
Baekeland accepted the offer and stayed with the company for a short time before leaving to start his own business as a consultant and independent researcher.
Throughout the early 1890s, he worked tirelessly to create a photosensitive paper that allowed photographers to print enlargements by artificial light. He called it Velox.
To produce and sell his latest invention, Baekeland enlisted the financial support of investor Leonard Jacobi and founded the Nepera Chemical Company in Yonkers, N.Y.
The venture was a quick success. In fact, it did so well that, in 1899, photography mogul George Eastman of Eastman Kodak bought Nepera from Baekeland and his investors for an astounding $750,000 (the 2016 equivalent of over $21 million).
A mere decade after coming to America, Baekeland had made a fortune and was, as he put it, “a free man, ready to devote [himself] . . . to [his] favorite studies.” Although Baekeland never had to work again, a life of idle luxury didn’t appeal to him.
In 1904, he purchased a spacious estate in Yonkers, where he built a fully equipped laboratory. Temporarily locked out of the photography business by a noncompete clause in the Nepera sale, Baekeland began looking for another scientific project with commercial application.
The birth of Bakelite
With the rise of electric light, the demand for wiring was at an all-time high. Manufactures had plenty of copper, but the materials used for insulation (namely shellac and vulcanized rubber) were either scarce or inadequate.
So Baekeland decided to search for a synthetic substitute—something that was strong yet moldable.
He’d read about a pair of German chemists who, in the late 1800s, had created a shellac-like substance by mixing phenol, formaldehyde, and hydrochloric acid. This, however, produced a thick resin that, when heated, became brittle and full of holes.
Baekeland believed the problem was in the heating process itself. To test his theory, he devised a heated pressurizer to cook the resin.
Set to 100 pounds per square inch, the container heated the resin yet suppressed the bubbly gasses that had been weakening the product’s composition. Now, the resulting material was hard and durable.
On July 11, 1907, Baekeland filed an application for a patent on his invention, which he called Bakelite. In his diary entry for that day, he remarked, “Unless I am very much mistaken, this invention will prove important to the future.”
He had no idea how right he was. Because manufacturers could inject Bakelite into a vast array of molds, they could make virtually anything imaginable with it.
By the 1930s, clocks, lamps, telephones, cameras, radios, utensils, handgun grips, and automobiles utilized Bakelite in some capacity. Impervious to moisture, the synthetic material was rugged and cheaper than its organic counterparts.
The Plastic Age was born and, until his death in 1944, Baekeland played an active role in its evolution. Almost three-quarters of a century later, his name may have faded into obscurity, but evidence of his genius can be seen everywhere.