How an Unashamedly Money-grabbing Scientist Invented Plastic

History Hit

2 mins

10 May 2017

Plastic. It dominates our world. From barbie dolls to paddling pools and everything in between, this bendy and endlessly durable material surrounds us to such an extent that it seems extraordinary that 110 years ago it didn’t exist at all, but was simply the brainchild of an unashamedly money-grabbing Belgian scientist called Leo Baekeland.

Renowned chemist Leo Baekeland.

“To make money of course”

Baekeland was already a rich 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.

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There he set up a private laboratory and began to research the new and emerging field of synthetic resins. When asked why he simply said “to make money of course,” for 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.

Earlier attempts in the late 19th century had produced little more than what was described as “black guck,” but this failed to deter Baekeland.

Carefully studying these earlier failures, he began to experiment with the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, carefully varying the pressure temperature and proportions each time 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.

Bakelite

Finally, this dream came true in 1907 when the conditions were finally right and he had his material – Bakelite – which became the world’s first commercial plastic. The excited chemist filed a patent in July 1907, and had it granted in December 1909.

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His moment of crowning glory came, however, on 5 February 1909, when he announced his discovery to the world at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. The remaining 35 years of his life were more than comfortable, as his Bakelite company became a major corporation in 1922 and he was flooded with honours medals and prizes.

Today Bakelite is celebrated as the material which started off an immense industry, and many plastic enthusiasts (there are a surprising number out there) collect objects made from it in order to honour its creator.

A green bakelite dog napkin ring. Credit: Science History Institute / Commons.

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