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Leo Baekeland and the story of Bakelite

Leo Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite

In my continuing series of Remarkable Belgians, I turn my attention to a Belgian inventor who is not a household name but who had a considerable impact on our daily lives. In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic. This useful material opened the door to the development of modern materials science and industrial chemistry.

Early life and education

Leo Baekeland was born on 14 November, 1863, in Ghent, Belgium, the son of a cobbler and a house maid. He displayed an early interest in science and chemistry, which led him to pursue higher education in these fields. Baekeland attended the Koninklijk Atheneum on the Ottogracht in Ghent and later studied at the University of Ghent, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1882.

Career beginnings

After completing his education, Baekeland worked as a lecturer and later became an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Ghent before pursuing various research opportunities in Europe. In 1889, he immigrated to the United States with his wife Céline Swarts (the daughter of his professor), where he began working as a research chemist for a photography company.

Leo Baekeland USA ID card

Invention of Velox photographic paper

Baekeland’s early career in the United States was marked by his invention of Velox, a type of photographic paper that could be developed under artificial light. This invention revolutionized the field of photography by enabling the production of photographs more quickly and conveniently, without the need for natural sunlight. In 1898 the Eastman Kodak Company purchased Baekeland’s invention for a reputed $750,000.

Velox photographic paper was an invention by Leo Baekeland

Invention of Bakelite

Baekeland’s most significant contribution to science and industry came with his invention of Bakelite in 1907. Bakelite was the first synthetic plastic made from synthetic components rather than natural substances like cellulose or rubber. Baekeland discovered Bakelite while seeking a synthetic substitute for shellac, a natural resin which at that time was made from the shells of beetles, and was used in electrical insulation.

What is Bakelite?

Bakelite is a type of thermosetting plastic. It was revolutionary because it was the first synthetic plastic that retained its shape and structure after being moulded and cooled. This property made it incredibly useful for a wide range of applications, from electrical insulators to kitchenware.

Radio made of Bakelite, invented by Leo  Baekeland
Early radio made of Bakelite

How Bakelite is made

  • Raw materials: Bakelite is created from phenol and formaldehyde, which are mixed together to form a thermosetting resin.
  • Condensation polymerization: The process of creating Bakelite involves a chemical reaction called condensation polymerization. This reaction occurs when the phenol and formaldehyde molecules combine in the presence of a catalyst, typically an acid or base.
  • Heat and pressure: The mixture is then subjected to heat and pressure in a mould. This causes the molecules to cross-link, forming a rigid, three-dimensional structure. Once the material cools and hardens, it retains its shape permanently.
The original "Bakelizer" in which Bakelite was made
The original “Bakelizer” in which Bakelite was made. Photo (C) Archives Center, National Museum of American History

What are the properties of Bakelite?

  • Heat resistance: Bakelite is known for its excellent heat resistance, which made it ideal for use in electrical insulators and components.
  • Insulating properties: It is a good insulator of electricity, which further contributed to its use in electrical applications.
  • Durability: Bakelite is a very durable material that is resistant to chemicals and scratches.
  • Colourful and mouldable: Bakelite could be easily moulded into various shapes and it was easy to introduce different colours into the mix, making it popular for consumer products such as radios, telephones, jewellery, and kitchenware.
Bakelite billiard balls

Baekeland’s impact and awards

Leo Baekeland’s invention of Bakelite marked a significant milestone in the history of materials science and industrial chemistry. Bakelite was the first truly synthetic plastic, laying the foundation for the development of countless other synthetic polymers that would follow. Baekeland’s work paved the way for the modern plastics industry and had a profound impact on manufacturing, technology, and everyday life. Indeed, Bakelite earned Baekeland the title of “The Father of the Plastics Industry”.

In recognition of his contributions to science and industry, Baekeland received numerous honours and awards throughout his lifetime, including the Perkin Medal (1916), the Franklin Medal (1940) , and the Willard Gibbs Award. He founded the Bakelite Corporation, which became a successful and influential company in the field of plastics.

Bakelite telephones
Who remembers these? Yes, made from Bakelite!

Death and legacy

In 1939 Baekeland retired and sold the Bakelite company to the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, now a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company. Among his retirement projects, he loved to sail his yacht, the Ion, and he developed a large tropical garden on his winter estate in Coconut Grove, Florida, although he also became a recluse.

Baekeland died on 23 February 1944, in Beacon, New York, at the age of 80. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.

Resting place of Leo Baekeland the inventor of Bakelite.

At the time of Baekeland’s death, the world production of Bakelite was an impressive 175,000 tons, and it was being used in over 15,000 different products.

His legacy lives on in the many applications and innovations of plastics, as well as in the Bakelite Museum in England (currently being relocated), and a Bakelite Museum in Switzerland, both of which display a large collection of Bakelite objects. A smaller museum is located in Syracuse, USA.

In Belgium he was awarded the Order of the Crown (1919), Commander, Order of Leopold (1924) and Officer, Legion d’honneur (1923). In 1978, he was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at Akron, Ohio.

The heat shield on the 1995 Jupiter probe was made from Bakelite.
Part of the heat shield on the 1995 Galileo probe to Jupiter was made from Bakelite. Artistic impression (C) NASA

Is Bakelite still used today?

While Bakelite was widely used throughout much of the 20th century, its use has declined significantly since the development of newer plastics with improved properties. However, Bakelite still has niche applications today, particularly in areas where its heat resistance and electrical insulation properties are valuable. It is also prized by collectors for its vintage aesthetic and historical significance.

For example, Bakelite is still used as printed circuit boards, distribution boards, adhesives, paints, photoresist materials, and negative electrodes for lithium-ion batteries. Bakelite has some advantages over other plastics, such as heat resistance, electrical non-conductivity, and durability.

Leo Baekeland’s Bakelite also has some potential future uses. Some researchers have found ways to use Bakelite in carbon nanotubes, graphene, and activated carbon. These materials have applications in energy storage, catalysis, water purification, and other areas.

Bakelite: The Movie

A one-hour documentary has been made that re-enacts Baekeland’s life with archival footage, photos, first-person accounts, and interviews with scientists and historians. It’s been put together by one of Baekeland’s great grandsons. I have not seen “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic” myself yet but from the trailer below it looks very interesting:

22 thoughts on “Leo Baekeland and the story of Bakelite”

  1. I didn’t know any of this. I’m glad you put up this interesting post. I’d seen Bakelite in old radios and once an antique that specialized in jewelry made of the stuff, but as “the first synthetic plastic,” obviously an extremely significant invention. And now our world is saturated with the stuff.

    1. I’m sure he nor anyone at that time had any inclination that plastics would become so ubiquitous and potentially harmful to the environment. And of course Bakelite can’t be recycled either.

      1. Yeah I don’t think any of us would’ve foreseen this worldwide immersion in plastics. I doubt Charles Babbage or Alan Turing expected I’d be reading articles posted in Belgium on a handheld device while it streams music to bluetooth earbuds (or did they?)

  2. First time I’m learning about Leo Baekeland. What a legacy! On the other hand, his title as “The Father of the Plastics Industry” weighs heavily in our times as ubiquitous and (almost) indestructible plastics have become a scourge for humanity.

    1. Indeed Rosaliene. Inventors and inventions rarely, if ever, take the future into account. Even today people are only now beginning to wonder what to do with old solar panels and electric car batteries, both of which are difficult to deconstruct and recycle.

  3. I have never quite forgiven my family for declining to go to the Bakelite museum in Somerset when we were on holiday there a million years ago. It closed, though the contents are intact and they are looking for new premises. Here’s hoping!

    1. Ah, the internal politics and wrangling of a family holiday! Brings back memories. I hope the museum finds a suitable location. That’s a lot of Bakelite in storage in someone’s attic!

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