Last modified on March 15, 2017, at 19:19

Leo Baekeland

Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863–1944) was a Flemish chemist who invented Bakelite, one of the earliest synthetics that transformed the material basis of modern life, in 1907, and his inventive genius also propelled him into several other new chemical technological ventures at the turn of the 20th century.

"Baekeland taught for several years at the University of Ghent after graduating. In 1889, when he was 26, he traveled to New York to continue his study of chemistry; Professor Charles F. Chandler of Columbia University then persuaded Baekeland to stay in the United States and recommended him for a position at a New York photographic supply house. This experience led him a few years later, when he was working as an independent consultant, to invent Velox, an improved photographic paper that could be developed in gaslight rather than sunlight. In 1898 the Eastman Kodak Company purchased Baekeland's invention for a reputed $750,000, a sum that allowed him to spend the rest of his life in experimentation.


Baekeland next entered the field of electrochemistry and he equipped his private laboratory on the grounds of his home in Yonkers, New York, with a few electrochemical appliances. When friends asked Baekeland how he entered the field of synthetic resins, he answered that he had chosen it deliberately, looking for a way to make money. His first objective was to find a replacement for shellac, which at that time was made from the shells of oriental lac beetles. Chemists had begun to recognize that many of the natural resins and fibers useful for coatings, adhesives, woven fabrics, and the like were polymers (large molecules made up of repeating structural units), and they had begun to search for combinations of reagents that would react to form synthetic polymers. Baekeland began to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, and first produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called "Novolak," which never became a market success. Then he turned to developing a binder for asbestos, which at that time was molded with hard natural rubber. By carefully controlling the pressure and temperature applied to an intermediate made from the two reagents, he could produce a polymer that, when mixed with fillers, produced a hard moldable plastic. Bakelite, though relatively expensive, was soon found to have many uses, especially in the rapidly growing automobile and radio industries. Baekeland retired in 1939 and sold his successful plastics company to the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation."[1]