Leo Baekeland: The Visionary Scientist Who Pioneered Synthetic Plastic | History Hit

Leo Baekeland: The Visionary Scientist Who Pioneered Synthetic Plastic

Celeste Neill

10 Apr 2023
Leo Baekeland
Image Credit: TIME Magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synthetic plastic is an omnipresent material that has revolutionised modern society. From household items like barbie dolls and paddling pools to complex industrial applications, plastic is an essential part of our daily lives. However, it may come as a surprise that just over a century ago, plastic did not exist at all. It was the ingenuity of a brilliant Belgian scientist named Leo Baekeland that gave birth to this ubiquitous material.

But how did Baekeland, a visionary scientist, manage to invent a groundbreaking substance that would go on to define the 20th century and transform the lives of people worldwide?

Baekeland was already a successful inventor

Baekeland was already a successful man when he decided to experiment with the combination of synthetic polymers. The invention of Velox photographic paper, which was a major breakthrough in early film, had brought him much fame and recognition in 1893, and meant that the cobbler’s son from Ghent was able to pursue a variety of projects in his new home of Yonkers, New York.

There he set up a private laboratory and began to research the new and emerging field of synthetic resins. When asked why, he said, ‘to make money, of course.’ It was a desire rooted in scientific knowledge: it had been believed for some time that the combination of certain polymers might create new materials that would be cheaper and more flexible than any that occurred naturally.

Helping Dallas uncover the true nature of Tupperware is the wonderful Alison Clarke, professor of design history and theory at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the author of Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950's America.
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He experimented with previous formulas

Earlier attempts in the late 19th century had produced little more than what was described as ‘black guck’, but this failed to deter Baekeland. Studying earlier unsuccessful formulas, he experimented with phenol and formaldehyde reactions, carefully varying pressure, temperature, and proportions to achieve different results.

He was convinced that if he just found the right combination of these factors, he might create something hard and durable that could still be moulded into almost any shape – and that this game-changing discovery would make his fortune.

He invented the material ‘Bakelite’ in 1907

Leo Baekeland’s dream became a reality in 1907 with the creation of Bakelite, the world’s first commercial plastic. After years of experimentation and perseverance, Baekeland filed a patent for his invention in July 1907, which was granted in December 1909. His groundbreaking discovery marked a significant milestone in the history of materials science.

Baekeland’s moment of crowning glory came in February 1909 when he unveiled Bakelite to the world at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. The potential applications of Bakelite seemed limitless, and his Bakelite company quickly grew into a major corporation by 1922. Baekeland’s contributions to chemistry earned him numerous honours and prizes, solidifying his legacy as a pioneering scientist and visionary inventor.

Celeste Neill