Dr Leo Baekeland

Dr Leo Baekeland, who came from Belgium but settled in the US, was a born entrepreneur. He made the prodigious fortune of $1m in 1899 when he sold the rights to a new photographic paper to George Eastman of Kodak. The new paper, known as Velux, did not rely on sunlight to develop images, so that photographers could develop by artificial light instead.

With his windfall, Baekeland bought a handsome estate near New York, and a car, much to the chagrin of his horse-owning neighbours, who called him a 'gasoline devil'. After converting a barn into a laboratory, he looked around for another venture.

The new electrical industry relied on a natural material, shellac, for insulators. Shellac was derived from a resin deposited by beetles in southeast Asia, but supplies were limited. Baekeland and his assistant spent three years working on an artificial replacement, and finally in 1907 came up with a new material, which he called Bakelite.

He got there by heating phenol and formaldehyde in the presence of an acid or base, to produce a shellac-like liquid that could be used for coating surfaces. Further heating made the mixture more solid, and when put in an autoclave he called a 'bakelizer,' it produced a hard, transparent, mouldable substance we would recognise as plastic.

According to his memorial address, published in Chemistry & Industry in August 1945: 'All previous workers on this reaction had used either a substantial quantity of an acid accelerator and produced a permanently fusible shellac-like body … or so much alkali catalyst that the reaction was uncontrollable and a hard spongy-like mass was produced of no commercial value.'

His own comment about the previous failures was that 'they should have succeeded, but they wouldn't'.

After patenting the material, known to chemists as polyoxybenzylmethylen-glycolanhydride, he unveiled it to the American Chemical Society in 1909 in three versions, Bakelite A, B and C. It was Bakelite C that was of particular interest as an insulator.

Baekeland played an active role within SCI for many years. He attended a conference in Manchester in 1906, and was awarded the William Perkin Medal in 1916 and the Messel Medal in 1938. After his death the Baekeland lectures were inaugurated.

His observations on getting products to market would not be unfamiliar to many today: 'Many fortunes have been swallowed up because the research men underestimated the factor of the time development. In other cases, while expensive research went on, the trend of the market had changed or entirely new improvements had been introduced which rendered the initial problem obsolete.'

Bakelite was not quite the first plastic, as celluloid, which was ultimately derived from cotton and other vegetable matter, had been around for some time. But it was the first synthetic plastic, and the General Bakelite Corporation was set up to manufacture and license such early 20th century essentials including pipe stems, billiard balls, knife handles, phonograph records, knobs and buttons.

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