Leo Hendrik Baekeland
Leo Hendrik Baekeland
A1940 Time magazine article called Leo Hendrik Baekeland the "Father of Plastic," and with good reason. His invention of the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, proved cheaper and more versatile than other substances, and has since been used in everything from pot handles to electronics.
Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium, on November 14, 1863, the son of working-class parents. As a teenager, Baekeland spent his days in high school, and his evenings at the Ghent Municipal Technical School, where he studied chemistry, physics, mathematics, and economics. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Ghent, and in 1884 received his doctorate of science, graduating with honors.
From 1882-89, Baekeland taught chemistry at the University of Ghent. Between 1885 and 1887 he also taught chemistry and physics at the Government Higher Normal School of Science in Bruges, Belgium. In 1889, Baekeland and his wife, Celine, traveled to the United States and decided to stay permanently. His dual interest in photography and science led him to a position as a chemist at the photographic manufacturing company E. and A. T. Anthony and Company. In 1893, he left that position to found the Nepera Chemical Company in Yonkers, New York.
In the late 1800s, photographs were developed using sunlight, which made it impossible for photographers to complete their work under cloudy skies. Baekeland perfected a new photographic paper, named Velox, which allowed photographs to be developed with the use of an artificial light. In 1899, George Eastman (1854-1932) of Eastman Kodak bought the rights to Velox for the enormous sum of one million dollars. Baekeland celebrated his new wealth by purchasing an estate in an upscale community north of Yonkers.
After the success of his first invention, Baekeland shifted his focus to creating a new, cheaper, synthetic form of shellac to replace that which was naturally secreted by the Laccifer lacca beetle. The latter form was becoming more and more expensive, and harder and harder to obtain. Baekeland and his assistant began experimenting in 1904, in search of a substance that would not only dissolve in solvents to create an effective insulator, but one that would also be malleable, or pliable, like rubber.
Three years later, while working with a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, Baekeland noticed that the two chemicals, when combined, produced a shellac-like residue which could be used to coat surfaces like a varnish. When Baekeland put this mixture into his "Bakelizer," a heavy iron pot similar to a pressure cooker, out came a moldable, yet solid, substance. The synthetic plastic, which he called Bakelite, was unique in that it would not melt under extreme heat. That made it especially useful for things like automobile engine parts and handles for kitchen utensils. Baekeland received a patent for Bakelite in 1906, and founded the General Bakelite Corporation (later the Bakelite Company) four years later to manufacture and sell his invention. Baekeland served as president of the company until it merged with the Union Carbide Corporation in 1939.
Bakelite was known as "the material of a thousand uses," and became part of everything from beads to telephones, from jewelry to electronics. In 1945, a year after Baekeland's death, annual plastic production in the United States rose to more than four hundred thousand tons. Today, it is everywhere we look, in every aisle of the local grocery store, in virtually every item used in the home. Baekeland's invention came to represent an industrial, as well as a cultural, revolution, as epitomized in the classic line from the film The Graduate: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics."
Leo Hendrik Baekeland
Leo Hendrik Baekeland
An American chemist, inventor, and manufacturer, Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944) invented Bakelite, the first plastic to be used widely in industry.
Leo Ernst Baekeland was born in 1863 in Ghent, Belgium. He took a bachelor of science degree from the University of Ghent in 1882 and began to teach there as an assistant professor; he received his doctorate in natural science in 1884 and continued to teach for another 5 years. In 1889 he went to the United States on a traveling scholarship, liked the country, received a job offer from a photographic firm, and decided to make America his home.
These were the years when science was first coming to the attention of American industry. In some European countries, notably Germany, industrial research was already helping to improve old products and processes and to develop new ones. This wedding of science and technology was just beginning in the United States, first in those industries that had been close to science from their beginnings, such as the chemical and electrical industries. The manufacture of photographic equipment and materials was one such industry. Baekeland began work to improve photographic film, and in 1893 he established the Nepera Chemical Company to manufacture Velox paper, a film of his invention which could be handled in the light. In 1899 he sold out to the leading firm in the field, Eastman Kodak, and used the money to set up his own private industrial research laboratory in a converted barn behind his home in Yonkers, N.Y.
At this laboratory Baekeland began a large number of experiments covering a range of subjects. One of these was an attempt to produce a synthetic shellac by mixing formal-dehyde and phenolic bodies. Other experimenters had worked with these two substances, and it was known that the interaction was greatly influenced by the proportions used and the conditions under which they were brought together. Baekeland failed to synthesize shellac but instead discovered Bakelite, the first successful plastic.
Earlier plastics had only limited usefulness because of their tendency to soften when heated, harden when cooled, and interact readily with many chemical substances. Baekeland's new material did not suffer from any of these defects. Using temperatures much higher than previously thought possible, he developed a process for placing the material in a hot mold and adding both pressure and more heat so that a chemical change would take place, transforming the material in composition as well as shape.
He patented this process in 1909 and formed the Bakelite Corporation the following year to market the material. Bakelite soon became very successful and was widely used in industry as a substitute for hard rubber and amber, particularly in electrical devices. He retired from the company in 1939, honored for his success as a manufacturer and for his effectiveness as a spokesman for the whole concept of scientific research in the aid of industry.
There is no available biography of Baekeland. A sketch of his activities is in John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman, The Sources of Invention (1958). An exhaustive study of the American Chemical industry is Williams Haynes, American Chemical Industry (6 vols., 1945-1954). The best study of plastics is Morris Kaufman, The First Century of Plastics: Celluloid and its Sequel (1963). □