Baekeland Invents Bakelite Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Leo Hendrik Baekeland developed the first totally synthetic thermosetting plastic, which paved the way for modern material science.

Summary of Event

In the 1860’s, the firm of Phelan and Collender offered a prize of ten thousand dollars to anyone who could produce a substance that could serve as an inexpensive substitute for ivory, which was somewhat difficult to obtain in large quantities at reasonable prices. At the time, the amount of the prize represented a sizable sum of money, and many tinkerers and inventors sought to win it. Christian Friedrich Schönbein laid the groundwork for a breakthrough in the quest for a new material in 1846 with his serendipitous discovery of nitrocellulose, more commonly known as guncotton, which was produced by the reaction of nitric acid with cotton. A number of scientists explored the properties of this material, among them Alexander Parkes, Parkes, Alexander who had hopes of developing rubberlike materials that would be more colorful and thus more appealing than rubber. The first public display of his new material, dubbed Parkesine, Parkesine took place at an 1862 exposition in London. Although Parkesine was colorful and had potential for a wide variety of uses, it was not a commercial success, as Parkes could not overcome various shortcomings of the material. Inventions;Bakelite Bakelite Plastics;Bakelite Chemistry;plastics [kw]Baekeland Invents Bakelite (1905-1907) [kw]Invents Bakelite, Baekeland (1905-1907) [kw]Bakelite, Baekeland Invents (1905-1907) Inventions;Bakelite Bakelite Plastics;Bakelite Chemistry;plastics [g]United States;1905-1907: Baekeland Invents Bakelite[01200] [c]Science and technology;1905-1907: Baekeland Invents Bakelite[01200] [c]Inventions;1905-1907: Baekeland Invents Bakelite[01200] [c]Chemistry;1905-1907: Baekeland Invents Bakelite[01200] Baekeland, Leo Hendrik Schönbein, Christian Friedrich Baeyer, Adolf von Eastman, George

While Parkes struggled with Parkesine, an American inventor named John Wesley Hyatt Hyatt, John Wesley was tinkering with a similar substance. Hyatt was already in the synthetic materials business, owning a factory that produced dominoes from a material made of shellac and wood pulp. In his investigations of nitrocellulose, Hyatt found the key that had eluded Parkes. His discovery was that the addition of camphor to nitrocellulose under certain conditions led to formation of a white material that could be molded and machined. He dubbed this substance celluloid, Celluloid and this product is now acknowledged as the first synthetic plastic. Celluloid won the Phelan and Collender prize for Hyatt, and he promptly set out to exploit his product. Celluloid was used to make baby rattles, shirt collars, dentures, and other manufactured goods.

Ultimately, the properties of celluloid led to the realization that it was more suited for other things. As a billiard ball substitute, for instance, it was not really adequate for various reasons. First of all, it is a thermoplastic—in other words, it softens when heated and so can be easily deformed or molded at high temperatures. Also, it is highly flammable, hardly a desirable characteristic. A widely circulated, perhaps apocryphal, story claimed that celluloid billiard balls detonated when they collided. One of the more interesting uses of celluloid was in the making of motion-picture film, as it could be produced in a thin layer. It was used almost exclusively for this purpose, despite its flammability, until it was displaced by a less flammable substitute.

A class of materials related to celluloids are thermosetting compounds. Thermosetting compounds As the name implies, thermosetting materials are initially fluid and harden when heated, assuming the shapes of their containers. These thermosetting reactions are generally nonreversible, meaning the products tend to be stable. The first product of this class was developed in 1897 from the reaction of formaldehyde with milk protein. This was the first example of what are known as casein plastics, and the resulting material was widely used in the production of small items. It is significant in that it was the first human-made thermosetting plastic. Although celluloid and casein plastics were significant achievements, both were derivatives of natural products and thus were not completely synthetic substances. Therefore, the stage was set for a breakthrough into a totally new area of manufactured goods: synthetic plastics.

Leo Hendrik Baekeland is recognized as the first person to produce a completely artificial plastic. Born in Ghent, Belgium, Baekeland emigrated to the United States in 1889 to undertake applied research, a pursuit not encouraged in Europe at the time. Baekeland worked in the photographic industry until his good reputation allowed him to start his own consulting firm in 1891. He also pursued his research interests and achieved commercial success by developing Velox, a photographic paper. Industrialist George Eastman purchased the rights to Velox from Baekeland for one million dollars, and with this wealth, Baekeland purchased a home in Yonkers, New York, constructed a laboratory there, and continued his research efforts.

One area in which Baekeland hoped to make inroads was in the development of an artificial shellac, as he knew there would be a wide market for any reasonably priced substitute for shellac, an expensive natural product. Baekeland’s research scheme, begun in 1905, focused on finding a solvent that could dissolve the resinous products from a certain class of organic chemical reaction. The particular resins he used had been reported in the mid-1800’s by the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer. These resins were produced by the condensation reaction of formaldehyde with a class of chemicals called phenols. Baeyer found that frequently the major product of such a reaction was a gummy residue that was virtually impossible to remove from glassware. Baekeland focused on finding a material that could dissolve these resinous products, believing that such a substance would prove to be the shellac substitute he sought. His efforts proved frustrating, however, as he failed to find an adequate solvent for these resins. After repeated attempts, Baekeland shifted the orientation of his work. Abandoning the quest to dissolve the resins, he set about trying to develop a resin that would be impervious to any solvent, reasoning that such a material would have useful applications.

Baekeland’s experiments involved the manipulation of phenol-formaldehyde reactions through precise control of the chemical proportions, addition of catalysts, and manipulation of the temperature and pressure at which the reactions were performed. Many of these experiments were performed in a reactor vessel that was 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) tall, which he called a Bakelizer. In 1907, his meticulous experiments paid off when he opened the reactor to find that he had created a clear solid that was heat resistant, nonconducting, and machinable. Experimentation proved that the material could be dyed practically any color during the manufacturing process, with no effect on its physical properties.

Baekeland filed a patent for this new material in 1907. (Ironically, his patent was filed one day before that of James Swinburne, a British electrical engineer who had developed a similar product in his quest to create an insulating material.) Baekeland dubbed his new creation Bakelite and announced its existence to the scientific community on February 15, 1909, at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. The following year, the General Bakelite Corporation General Bakelite Corporation was formed, and the Bakelite it produced was used in many different industries. Among the first uses was in the manufacture of ignition parts for the rapidly growing automobile industry. At the time of Baekeland’s death in 1944, annual production of Bakelite was more than 125,000 tons, and the material was being used to produce an incredible variety of manufactured goods.


Baekeland’s synthesis of Bakelite paved the way for the development of a great variety of novel human-made products, some of which are similar to natural materials and some of which have no parallel in nature. Bakelite was introduced at the very time the automobile industry was in need of parts fabricated from such a material. This provided a firm industrial base for the material that is still retained.

In synthesizing Bakelite, Baekeland drew on both his theoretical knowledge of chemistry and, to a large extent, his practical knowledge based on years of experience. He did not fully understand the structure of his product on a molecular level. Bakelite proved to be the first of a class of compounds called synthetic polymers. Synthetic polymers Polymers;synthetic Polymers are long chains of molecules that are linked together chemically. There are many natural polymers, such as cotton. The discovery of synthetic polymers led to vigorous research into the field and attempts to produce other useful artificial materials. These efforts met with a fair amount of success; by 1940, a multitude of new products unlike anything found in nature had been developed. These included such materials as polystyrene and low-density polyethylene. In addition, polymer chemists sought to create artificial substitutes for natural polymers, such as rubber. One of the results of this research was the development of neoprene.

Industries also were interested in developing synthetic polymers to produce materials that could be used in place of natural fibers such as cotton. The most dramatic success in this area was achieved by Du Pont chemist Wallace Hume Carothers, Carothers, Wallace Hume who also developed neoprene. Carothers focused his energies on forming a synthetic fiber similar to silk, resulting in the synthesis of nylon. Plastics were widely used in World War II because of their properties, as in the case of Bakelite, and as substitutes for natural products in short supply, as with nylon.

Postwar development in the plastics industry yielded many useful new products, such as high-density polyethylene, for which Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Research and development of novel synthetic materials in more recent years produced such innovations as Kevlar, and the area remains one of intense competition.

Synthetic polymers constitute one branch of a broad area known as material science. Material science Novel, useful materials produced synthetically have allowed for tremendous progress in many areas. Examples of these new materials include high-temperature superconductors, composites, and ceramics as well as plastics. These materials have wide-ranging uses as structural components of aircraft, artificial limbs and implants, tennis rackets, garbage bags, and more.

Unlike most natural products, plastics are extremely persistent in the environment. Growing awareness of this characteristic has led to the implementation of recycling technology as well as research aimed at developing agents that facilitate the biodegradation of these materials. Inventions;Bakelite Bakelite Plastics;Bakelite Chemistry;plastics

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. 2d rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982. A user-friendly text that contains biographical information on more than fifteen hundred scientists and inventors. Extensive cross-referencing enables interested readers to learn much about both scientific discoveries and the personalities and accomplishments of the scientists involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canby, Thomas Y. “Reshaping Our Lives: Advanced Materials.” National Geographic 176 (December, 1989): 746-781. Presents a comprehensive overview of modern material science, including detailed discussions of polymers, ceramics, composites, and other materials. Also contains information on yearly production figures, theoretical background, and manufacturing techniques. Color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chiles, James R. “On Land, Sea, and in the Air, Those Polymer Invaders Are Here.” Smithsonian 16 (November, 1985): 76-86. Informative article gives a brief summary of the history of plastic and an excellent overview of modern plastic materials. Includes several good photographs of plastics manufacturing processes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fenichell, Stephen. Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century. New York: Collins, 1996. Traces the history of plastics and discusses their sociological importance as they revolutionized many fields, from fashion to medicine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedel, Robert. “A World of New Materials.” In Inventors and Discoverers: Changing Our World, edited by Elizabeth L. Newhouse. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1988. Presents a historical survey of materials science, including detailed history of such materials as rubber, celluloid, and plastics. Includes interesting photographs illustrating the broad potential of plastics touted to a receptive public. Also includes an excellent biographical profile of Baekeland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mossman, Susan, ed. Early Plastics: Perspectives 1850-1950. New York: Continuum, 2000. A collection of essays by historians of art and technology on all aspects of the social history of the first century of plastic. Includes twenty color plates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Trevor I. A Short History of Twentieth-Century Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. An excellent overview of technology from 1900 to 1950, this work compresses an incredible amount of material into a small text. Includes a chapter on chemicals with a section devoted to plastics that places twentieth century achievements in synthetic plastic research in perspective.

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