The Story of Bakelite
Chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944) invented and first patented the synthetic resin that we know as Bakelite in 1907. He publicly announced Bakelite in 1909 and planned to license other companies to manufacture it. But outside manufacturers made too many errors, so in 1910 he started the General Bakelite Company (later called the Bakelite Corporation) to manufacture thermosetting plastic.
At first Bakelite was used for industrial products, but in 1927 the Bakelite patent on phenol-formaldehyde resin expired, and other manufacturers rushed to open plants. Competition forced down the price of Bakelite and made production of inexpensive consumer products possible. Plastics became affordable substitutes for more expensive traditional materials. Molded plastic required less hand labor and was just what the machine age needed.
Competition also stimulated the introduction of new plastics in a variety of colors. Soon these cast resins were being used to make costume jewelry, toys, chess pieces, and many other products.
The Bakelite Corporation was a leader in convincing manufacturers to use plastic to beautify products. It worked with industrial designers, who in turn embraced plastics and applied them in the design of everything from telephones and radios to kitchen equipment, vanity cases, and jewelry. Bakelite was “the material of a thousand uses.” And during the Depression of the 1930s, the cheerful colors, whimsical design, and low cost of many Bakelite products were just what was needed.
Bakelite, along with other plastics, was celebrated in magazine articles and books. It was a material that could be transformed into “marvels of beauty” that “spoke” to modern man in the language of the twentieth century, the language of “invention” and “synthesis.” It was a modern miracle that expressed the beauty of the new machine age and heralded the age of plastics.
Bakelite entered millions of homes in the 1920s and 1930s, in the form of radios, which had exploded in popularity. Bakelite Corporation advertisements told consumers that Bakelite and modern design would help move the country forward during the Depression.
In 1939 Baekeland sold his company to Union Carbide Corporation. He then retired to Floriad, where he lived until he died in 1944.
More than 100 years after its invention, Bakelite is still made and used in a wide range of applications, ranging from automotive and electrical products to space shuttles. And Baekeland is known as "the father of plastics."