Leo Baekeland: The King of Plastics

Learn more about Leo Baekeland’s innovative spirit and passion for entrepreneurship that made him an icon of the American Industrial Age.
Birthplace: Ghent, Belgium
Industry: Chemical Field
Best known as: The King of Plastics
Recognition: National Inventors Hall of Fame
Honors: Officer of the Order of the Crown

Read on! 📖

Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Jun 15, 2022
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What is the contribution of Leo Baekeland?

When you have the inclination, the passion, and a clear vision of what you want to become, whatever station in life you are in, there is no challenge you cannot surmount.

In this article, we will revisit the life and career of an extraordinary man. 

Born lacking in comfort and luxury but with an extraordinary mind and drive, he excelled in his field of study; the world of chemistry. 

His inventions changed the world and made lives easier.

An immigrant from Belgium, he invented plastic, a substance that defined the 20th century and transformed lives around the world.

Meet the man who heralded the second coming of the American Industrial Age, Leo Hendrik Baekeland. 

Early Life: Childhood and Education

According to Literary Digest, “The name Baekeland is a Dutch word meaning ‘Land of Beacons.” Well, he is a beacon of light himself, as his inventions changed the course of the world.

Early Life: Childhood and Education

Leo knew what he wanted to do with his life at a young age. He loved science, especially chemistry. He gravitated toward this field.

Where did this legend come from?

Where was Leo Baekeland born? 

You must be wondering.

Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863. His father was a shoemaker, and his mother worked as a maid.

Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863

At five years of age, he joined the elementary school and later joined the government high school. Young Leo had a prodigious appetite for learning. 

What did Leo Baekeland study? 

Leo studied diligently at his mother’s urging, attended evening classes at the Ghent Municipal Technical School, and studied economics, mechanics, physics, and chemistry. He earned medals in all the subjects.

When he graduated with honors from the Ghent Municipal Technical School, he was awarded a scholarship by the City of Ghent to study chemistry at the Ghent University, which he entered in 1880 at the age of 17. Among his classmates, he was the youngest and the most brilliant.

he graduated with honors from the Ghent Municipal Technical School,

At the university, Baekeland studied the natural sciences and specialized in chemistry. A boyhood interest in photography was the thing that interested him in chemistry and which attracted him to it as a major. 

While studying at the University of Ghent, with the aid of the City Scholarship he had received, Leo served as a teaching assistant to relieve his parents from the worries of financially supporting him. 

He said later, having heard as a boy the story of Benjamin Franklin and having learned from it that a boy in humble circumstances could make his way entirely by his own efforts.

And just two years after entering the university, in 1882, he completed his Bachelor of Science degree. He continued his studies further and completed his Ph.D. in 1884. True to form, he earned the distinction of maxima cum laude at 21 years of age. 

Leo was a young academic star.

Belgian Rising Star Star

In 1887, Baekeland was appointed Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the Bruges Government Higher Normal School. During the same time period, Baekeland developed a method for developing photographic plates without the use of chemicals. He applied for and was granted a patent for his invention in Belgium.

Baekeland was appointed Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Ghent two years later, in 1889. Leo received a travel scholarship to visit universities in England and America following his appointment. As a result, he visited many prestigious universities in England and the United States.

During his visit to New York City, Leo Baekeland met Columbia University Professor Charles F. Chandler and Richard Anthony from E. and H.T. Anthony photography studio.

Professor Chandler convinced him to move to the US while Anthony offered him a job as a chemist in his company.

Early Career

Ghent, Baekeland's hometown, was a center for the production of photographic dry plates, an industry pioneered by Van Monkhoven in the 1880s. Monkhoven was partial to young Baekeland. He encouraged Baekeland to experiment with photography and the chemistry of its processes and to broaden his knowledge in the field. And so Baekeland did, and more.

But did Leo Baekeland work as a chemist? 

When Richard Anthony, the E. and H.T. photographic company owner met Baekeland in New York, he saw the young chemist's enormous potential and offered him a job.

However, two years after starting work for the Anthonys, Baekeland resigned to become an independent consulting and research chemist in 1893. Specifically, he intended to devote his energy to developing the chemical processes he had devised.

When Richard Anthony, the E. and H.T. photographic company owner met Baekeland in New York

When was Velox photographic paper invented? 

During this time, however, he was afflicted. During his illness, he had plenty of time to think. With little cash and increasing debt, he said, 

he had plenty of time to think. With little cash and increasing debt, he said,

Working independently, Leo Baekeland began researching his favorite subject, photographic materials. He successfully developed a commercially viable photographic paper called Velox after two years of intense research and struggle. Velox photographic paper came out in 1893.

The invention was founded on the process of gelatin silver chloride coating on photographic paper exposed to artificial light.

Velox was destined to become very widely used in the future, generating a financial return that set Baekeland free and allowed him to make other outstanding discoveries.

But, in the meantime, the United States was in the grip of a recession. Baekeland could not find an investor or buyer to commercialize his product. That did not deter him. The Nepera Chemical Company was co-founded by him, Albert Hahn, and Lenard Jacobi. The company grew into a profitable commercial venture!

The Nepera Chemical Company

Where did Leo Baekeland build his first laboratory? 

In 1889, Leo Baekeland, along with his partners, sold the company to George Eastman and used the proceeds to buy Snug Rock, a house in Yonkers, New York, in which he set up his well-equipped laboratory. 

Leo Baekeland build his first laboratory

Due to a clause in the sale with the Eastman Kodak Co. that restricts Baekeland from performing any kind of research in photography for the next 20 years, he diversified into other fields.

Electrolytic cell

Baekeland became interested in electrochemistry around this time. This was because he saw that electrochemistry, which had been limited to the electro-deposition of a few metals from aqueous solutions, had become an important branch of the chemical industry.

Because of his interest in these developments, Baekeland decided to visit Germany in 1900 for a "refresher" in electrochemistry science. He spent the winter there. Baekeland brushed up on his knowledge of electrochemistry at the Technological Institute of Charlottenburg. 

When he returned to Yonkers, he outfitted his laboratory with electrochemical equipment to conduct further research.

At this point in Leo’s life is where Townsend and Hooker come into Play. 

But what did Leo Baekeland do with Townsend and Hooker? 

You might ask.

At that time, Clinton P. Townsend invented his electrolytic cell to produce caustic soda and chlorine from salt. And Elon H. Hooker asked Baekeland to investigate the Townsend electrolytic cell, preliminary to its application on an industrial scale.

What problems did Leo Baekeland solve? 

He briefly assisted Elon Huntington Hooker and Clinton Paul Townsend in developing a high-quality electrolytic cell. Baekeland created a more robust diaphragm cell for the chloralkali process by filling it with a mixture of iron oxide, asbestos fiber, and iron hydroxide.

In his work on the Townsend cell, Baekeland constructed two full-size electrolytic cells embodying the improvements he and his team made. He worked under varying conditions, day and night, for months.

His innovations were instrumental in forming the Hooker Chemical Company in 1903 and in building one of the largest electrochemical plants at Niagara Falls.

Fast fact: Hooker Chemical Company, founded in 1903 by Elon Huntington, electrolyzed salt into chlorine and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) (called by the names caustic soda and lye) in a chloralkali process. They chose Niagara Falls as the company's location in part because of the low-cost electricity provided by the Niagara Falls power project, the plentiful salt from nearby mines, and the availability of water from the Niagara River.

25 Inventions That Changed the World

What is the history of Bakelite? The Shellac Substitute.

Eventually, Baekeland turned his attention to his most famous study - the research that originated a major industry in plastics. By finding how to direct the action of formaldehyde upon phenols in proper channels, he gave to the world an important new material which was named and trade-marked "Bakelite." 

Baekeland's foremost objective was to find a replacement for shellac. During this time, chemists began to acknowledge that many natural resins and fibers useful for coatings are polymers. Baekeland studied the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, and he produced soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac he called Novolak.

Novolak

But it was not a market success.

Then how did Leo Baekeland create Bakelite? 

He turned his energies to developing a phenol-formaldehyde binder for asbestos, which at that time was molded with hard natural rubber. Finally, he successfully produced a polymer that, when mixed with fillers, produced a hard moldable plastic.

Thus the first synthetic polymer was born, and the age of plastic began. So now, you don’t have to ask, “Who discovered plastic?”

Bakelite was unique because of its resistance to extreme heat, and it would not melt. It was the first plastic commercially produced that is entirely synthetic, can be molded, and is resistant to heat, solvent, and electricity.

Bakelite's application as an electrical insulator was immediate and soon expanded to other diverse and multiple uses. 

It became known as the material of a thousand uses. 

It is a manufacturer's dream because it is easy to work with; it does not catch fire or break and does not conduct electricity. Bakelite's versatility extended beyond its initial applications as a varnish, abrasive binder, and electrical oil coating. It would quickly become the preferred material for many manufactured products.

Yonkers was the site of the first bakelite manufacturing in connection with its commercialization. In 1910, the General Bakelite Company (later the Bakelite Corporation) was founded to manufacture and distribute the raw materials used to make bakelite parts. They established a factory in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

From the company's founding until its merger with the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation in 1939, Baekeland served as president and driving force. 

Through intelligent organization and careful selection of associates, Baekeland could keep free of routine and business entanglements long enough to maintain his research interest and devote some time to it, and the many scientific, patriotic, and educational calls made on him.

The Age of Plastic

The Age of Plastic

After receiving a patent in 1909, Baekeland launched a full-fledged marketing campaign. Soon after, bakelite radios, cars, appliances, costume jewelry, and smoker's accessories appeared.

Bakelite was the perfect product at the time because the automotive, aviation, and electronic industries were all growing and needed materials like Bakelite.

Did you know that the heat shield on the 1991 Jupiter probe was a phenolic resin based on phenol and formaldehyde? One of Baekeland's inventions!

Baekeland's invention ushered in an industrial, as well as a cultural, revolution. Bakelite plastic revolutionized the 20th century and transformed people's lives worldwide.  

FAQs About Bakelite

What was so significant about Bakelite?

Bakelite was compact and lightweight, and it could be molded into virtually limitless shapes, so its use spread quickly as manufacturers recognized its potential. 

It drew buyers mainly for its aesthetic appeal: a svelte, fashionable appearance combined with a significant, high-end feel.

When did Bakelite become popular?

Bakelite left perhaps the most indelible mark on the world of fashion.

Bakelite jewelry

Bakelite jewelry became extremely popular in the 1920s as an inexpensive and appealing substitute for other materials. 

By the 1950s, it was available in a variety of colors, including translucent and marbled shades.

Honors and Legacy

Honors and Legacy

In 1940, Time Magazine named Leo Baekeland the "Father of Plastic" because Bakelite proved more versatile, cheaper to produce than any other substances, and had diverse uses. In fact, it appears to have been used in almost everything, from pots to electronics.

Throughout his lifetime, Baekeland obtained about 400 patents relating to his innovations.

Leo Baekeland, the prolific inventor, received several honorary 

doctorates. To name: 

  • The University of Pittsburgh in 1916
  • Columbia University in 1929
  • The University of Edinburgh in 1937 

He received several awards during his lifetime. Prominent among those are:

  • The Willard Gibbs Medal (1913)
  • Parkin Medal (1916)
  • The Messel Medal (1938) 
  • The Franklin Medal (1940)

Among his most notable associations are:

  • He was an esteemed member of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Chemical Advisory Committee.
  • He was President of the Chemical Engineering Society in 1912 and the Chemical Society in 1924.

In 1978, Leo Baekeland was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

As a son of the soil, the Belgian Government was proud to bestow upon Leo Baekeland the prestigious ‘Officer of the Order of the Crown’ and ‘Commander of the Order of Leopold.’ 

Officer of the Order of the Crown
Commander of the Order of Leopold

Today, Baekeland’s innovation lives on in his patents and trademarks. The Bakelite Synthetics corporation, with its main headquarters in Kentucky (and branches in ten countries!), continues to manufacture Bakelite products used in fire-resistant buildings and transportation systems, from electronics to space travel, and several industrial applications.

Bakelite Synthetics corporation

Bakelite made lives easier, more enjoyable, and more colorful. Just think of pots, guitars, pieces of games and toys, pieces of jewelry, and even the whole body of cars! And thousands (or millions?) more.

But his greatest legacy is the use of Bakelite in technological components.

Personal Life

When did Leo Baekeland get married? 

Baekeland fell in love with Celine Swarts, the charming daughter of his chemistry professor Theodore Swarts.

On August 8, 1889, Leo Baekeland married Céline Swarts. Nina, Jenny, and George were the couple's three children.

Leo Baekeland married Céline Swarts

The marriage turned out to be a particularly happy one. 

‘’You have talked here tonight about my many discoveries," Baekeland said later, ‘’but you haven't mentioned my greatest discovery—a discovery I made when I was still a student. That great discovery was a woman who is here with us tonight—my wife."

Baekeland became more eccentric as he grew older, engaging in heated debates with his son, George, and presumptive heir over salary and other matters. In 1939, he sold the General Bakelite Company to Union Carbide and retired at his son's request. 

He became a recluse, eating everything from cans and becoming obsessed with creating an enormous tropical garden on his winter estate in Coconut Grove, Florida.

On February 23, 1944, he died in a sanatorium in Beacon, New York, from a cerebral hemorrhage. Baekeland was laid to rest in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.

Famous People Buried in Sleepy Hollow

Many of history's greatest figures are buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Key Takeaway

The contributions of Leo Hendrik Baekeland to the world of business are immense!

As an inventor, he was not easily discouraged as he attempted to harness the reaction of phenol and formaldehyde into a manageable, commercial product.

And what a marketer he was! His invention challenged the perception that synthetic plastics were inferior to natural materials such as amber or wood. His success in this area facilitated the marketing of other plastic products as well.

As an entrepreneur, he knows what the market needs. He not only created a tool to fill the void in the market, but he also built a business enterprise. 

Clear focus and goals from early childhood made Baekeland excel in innovation. His quest for continuous improvement, refining, and improving inspires young researchers to emulate his accomplishments in fundamental and applied research.

What is remarkable about Baekeland is not only his innovative genius, but he was also a cunning and keen business person.

Baekeland has the art of timing pegged to perfection. He knows what the market needs and wants, so he created it. 

Did you know? 

The Bakelite Corporation's logo was the symbol of infinity to represent the multitude of uses for plastic. Being a genius marketer didn't hurt him either!

Bakelite Corporation's logo was the symbol of infinity

Are you still asking who Leo Baekeland is? 

Well, if there is a man to admire both in the scientific field and the business world, Baekeland, the "King of Plastic," is definitely THE MAN!

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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