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The Eccentric Engineer: Leo Baekeland, from photographic paper to Bakelite plastic

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We tell the story of how a new age dawned thanks to the brilliance of a Belgian chemist and the suspicious nature of a photographic entrepreneur.

Leo Baekeland didn’t set out to change the world. In fact, his stated intention was simply to make money. Yet thanks to a wary photographic tycoon, he handsomely managed both.

Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863, it was a move to America that made Baekeland’s first fortune and set in motion the events that would lead to his second. Originally a chemist, he invented a process for developing photographic plates with water, and this piqued the interest of the E&HT Anthony photographic company, during an academic study trip to New York. Having been persuaded to take a job with them, Baekeland decided to turn his back on Belgium and academia and settle in the USA.

However, the Anthony company would not benefit from his greatest photographic invention. Only after leaving the company did Baekeland turn his mind to creating photographic paper that could produce enlargements using projected light. Two years of work resulted in Velox, the first commercially successful photographic paper for use with an enlarger. Having set up his own company to exploit the invention, in 1899 he sold the whole lot to George Eastman, personally pocketing $215,000 (around $6m today).

This might be enough for most people, but you can’t keep a good inventor down. The problem was that the Eastman deal came with certain conditions. Aware of how Baekeland had made his great breakthrough after leaving Anthony, Eastman was keen the creator of Velox didn’t now create something better for someone else that damaged his large investment. The fortune came with a legal requirement that Baekeland would not undertake any photographic research for 20 years. Wealthy and now with his own well-​equipped laboratory, he needed a whole new field to explore, and his interest settled on the new field of polymers.

Having taken a quick refresher course back in Europe, he set about developing a replacement for shellac, a resin secreted by the female lac beetle. Shellac was an excellent non-toxic sealant with a glossy finish and good electrical insulation properties, but it was a natural product that had to be scraped from trees in India and Thailand – a time-​consuming and expensive process. As electrical engineering rapidly developed, insulators were needed, and the lac beetles just couldn’t keep up.

Chemists turned to trying to synthesise their own insulating materials. They discovered that many natural resins like shellac were polymers – large molecules made up of repeating chains – and they were starting to create these artificially using phenol and formaldehyde. Baekeland’s own team had tried this but, like everyone else, they just produced a black sticky mess that seemed entirely useless. With a background in photographic chemistry, Baekeland realised the key was subtlety. He set about trying to finely control these reactions, studying the effects of changing temperature and pressure, as well as the relative proportions of ingredients.

His efforts paid off and his first breakthrough was a shellac replacement called Novolak. However, this resin did not have all the qualities of shellac, and it proved to be a commercial failure. Yet surely there was something useful he could do with his product?

He tried using it to impregnate wood, rather than coating it, to add strength. This worked, but it was clearly a limited market. Then he had another idea.

What if he mixed filler, like wood dust or asbestos, with the resin and injected it into moulds? The resulting material set solid with a shiny finish that required little further processing. It was hard, light and a good electrical insulator. He called it Bakelite – the first thermosetting plastic ever created.

Having taken out patents across the globe, Baekeland announced his discovery to the American Chemical Society on 5 February 1909. His speech marked the arrival of the Age of Plastics. With its ability to be moulded and retain its shape, Bakelite quickly found uses across the rapidly expanding industries of mass production.

In particular, the rising technologies of the new age – radio, telephone and television – embraced it. The electrical industry also found myriad uses for a mass-produced material with excellent insulation and thermal properties.

Honours and money flowed, with Baekeland receiving the prestigious Perkin Medal in 1916 and a professorship at Columbia University. By the time of his death in 1944, Baekeland held over 100 patents and Bakelite was used in over 15,000 products. A new age had dawned. 

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