Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born November 14, 1863 in Ghent, Belgium. He graduated from high school first in his class when he was 16 and earned a scholarship to the University of Ghent. At 21 he received his doctorate degree with highest honors. He arrived in the United States by way of a traveling fellowship, settled in the state of New York and went to work for a photographic firm.
In 1891, Baekeland perfected the manufacturing process for "Velox," a gelatine silver chloride paper invented by Josef Eder (1885-1944). The paper made itpossible to develop photographic prints under artificial light. He sold hisinvention to George Eastman, owner of Kodak, for one million dollars in 1899.
Baekeland bought a home in Yonkers, New York, with his fortune and built a laboratory where he began experiments in electrochemistry. He was granted patents for his work with electrolytic cells. Baekeland then began searching for asubstitute for shellac which at the time was an entirely natural product. Baekeland felt the market was ready for a cheaper substitute.
Baekeland centered his research on finding a solvent that would dissolve a resinous substance formed by a condensation reaction of formaldehyde with phenol. As noted by Baeyer in the 1800s, this tacky residue was nearly impossibleto remove from laboratory glassware. Baekeland felt that a solvent capable ofbreaking down this residue would have to possess the shellac-like propertieshe was looking for.
After long research turned up no appropriate solvent, it occurred to Baekeland that a residue impervious to solvents might be more than a nuisance after all. He began attempting to create an impervious resin. He built a reaction vessel, which he called a Bakelizer, and began experimenting with the phenol-formaldehyde reaction. By controlling the chemical proportions, catalysts, pressure, and temperature, he eventually succeeded in forming a clear solid that was heat, water, and solvent resistant, and nonconductive. Baekeland patented the solid in 1907, naming it Bakelite. It could be easily machined and could be dyed any color with no adverse effects on its physical properties.Bakelite was first used in automotive applications. Soon it replaced hard rubber and amber for electrical uses and is still used in industrial arts wherethermoplastics are unsuitable. Though Baekeland did not fully understand thechemical structure of his invention his careful record keeping and observation during his experiments made his search a success.
Bakelite was the first totally synthetic plastic and the first thermoset plastic. After Bakelite was successfully developed, the search was on for other artificial substitutes for natural materials such as rubber and silk. By the 1940s, this research began to pay dividends--and today, petrochemical plasticsand fabrics are important in almost every aspect of our daily lives.