Who invented the Plastics

You may never have heard of Belgian Leo Hendrik Baekeland, but most homes are full of products enabled by his genius. He invented plastic. From pocketbooks and luggage handles to cups and bottles, our world is chock full of plastic items. There are entire categories of plastic items: toys, tapes, medicinal packaging, jewelry, furniture, and machine and automotive parts. Our computers and printers come in plastic cases and dozens of everyday items come in, or are stored in, plastic containers. Leo Baekeland made this possible.

An Inventor Is Born

Leo was born at Ghent, Belgium in 1863. The son of a shoemaker and a maid, he was still a young boy when he read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. It sparked a double interest, the one inspiring his lifelong love of America and the other the kind of curiosity that leads to inventing things.

His mother urged him onward so his diligent studies could make it possible for him to attend the University of Ghent. Leo’s specialties became chemistry and physics. At age 24, he was teaching at the university in Bruges.

Baekeland Dabbles with Inventing

Baekeland’s first inventions were in new, user-friendly photographic printing supplies. His work in photographic chemistry led to inventing Velox, the photographic printing paper that did not need natural light in order to develop prints.

He was, however, headed for a double impact that echoed the twofold inspirations he received from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

America and an Inventor’s Fortune

Leo fell in love with his university mentor’s daughter, Celine Swarts. He then received a travel scholarship which led Leo and Celine to New York. The United States was to be his home until he died in 1944 at Beacon, New York.

Baekeland was not yet 40 when photography magnate George Eastman (1854-1932) paid him $750,000 for the rights to Velox. (That would be upwards of $1.5 million in today’s currency.) The self-educated Eastman had invented roll film, then perfected the Kodak camera to use that film. Eastman brought photography into the mainstream by founding the Eastman Kodak Company in 1892. Eastman was already a millionaire, but Baekeland’s most famous invention was still in the incubator.

Looking for Better Shellac

It was in 1907, while he was looking for a better shellac, that Baekeland produced the initial thermoset plastic. This synthetic resin was soft enough to mold into shape, could be hardened under pressure, did not catch fire, couldn’t conduct electricity and was relatively inexpensive to produce. He named it Bakelite.

Bakelite’s initial industrial uses were for a varnish, a binder for abrasives and a coating for electrical oils. It did not take long, however, for manufacturers to discover how using it could create a wide variety of products.

Bakelite and Plastics

Baekeland received his patent for Bakelite in 1909, launched an efficient publicity and marketing strategy and formed his own company. He was responsible for Bakelite radios, appliances and even cars. Bakelite jewelry pieces are now collectors items. When his patents began to expire, similar substances became available for production. That’s when the age of plastics began.

Bakelite Empire Becomes Union Carbide

Leo’s son, George Washington Baekeland, was not interested in taking over the family business, so he sold his firm to Union Carbide for several million dollars.

Ironically, the Bakelite Corporation’s logo was the symbol for infinity and was intended to represent the many uses for plastic. Most of those plastic products, however, have been manufactured by other companies.

Plastics inventor Leo Baekeland would probably be amazed to see some 21st century uses of plastic. It has gone to the moon and been used to help photograph Mars. Look at all the plastic items around us and remember a little Belgian boy who admired Ben Franklin and American ingenuity.

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