Bakelite opened the door to the Age of Plastics and seeded the growth of a worldwide industry that today employs more than 60 million people.
Almost anyone can name a dozen familiar plastic products: appliances, cookware, countertops, flooring, telephones, toys, siding, sheathing, sporting goods, packaging, auto parts, circuit boards. But some are less visible: Medical implants – from hip-joint replacements to pacemakers to new lenses for cataract patients – are made of synthetic materials. So are the space ships and satellites with which we explore our universe.
As the future unfolds, plastics and other synthetic polymers will play increasingly versatile roles in medicine, electronics, aerospace, and advanced structural composites. New products will be manufactured and molded all over the world – in complex processes that began with Leo Baekeland, an idea, and the Bakelizer.
Hoping to capitalize on shortages of naturally occurring shellac — used to insulate electrical cables in the early years of the 20th century — Belgian-born chemist-entrepreneur Leo Baekeland in 1907 created the world’s first completely synthetic plastic. Baekeland mixed phenol and formaldehyde, subjected them to heat and pressure, and produced the sticky, amber-colored resin he named Bakelite.
Bakelite could be molded quickly into different shapes, an enormous advantage in mass production processes, and retained its shape even when heated or subjected to solvents. Soon Bakelite was being used for everything from jewelry to light bulb sockets. Its use diminished only when other, more brightly colored plastics were introduced.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History houses the six-foot-tall Bakelizer, the steam pressure vessel Baekeland used to commercialize his invention.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to read more about the chemistry of bakelite.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program