Leo Hendrik Baekeland: Inventor of Bakelite

Leo Hendrik Baekeland: Inventor of Bakelite

Author: ChemViews

Leo Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium, in November 14, 1863. He gained a scholarship from the City of Ghent to study chemistry at the University of Ghent. After gaining his Ph.D., he was appointed as an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Ghent, where he taught for several years.

After traveling to New York on a fellowship in 1889, he was persuaded to move there. He worked at a New York based photographic company for a couple of years, before setting himself up as a consultant. It was during this period that he developed Velox, a paper coated with gelatin silver chloride, which became the first commercially successful photographic paper that could be developed by artificial light. Eight years after this discovery, he sold the rights to the Eastman Kodak Company.

Baekeland’s other big discovery was the synthesis of Bakelite, the first plastic that held its shape after being heated. As an opportunity to make money he was looking for a substitute for shellac, which is a natural resin that is secreted by the female lac bug. He discovered that if the pressure and temperature were carefully controlled, a polymer could be synthesized from phenol and formaldehyde. On mixing this polymer with fillers, a hard moldable plastic was formed. Baekeland obtained a patent in 1909, and founded the General Bakelite Company in 1910. Soon, Bakelite was being used for the production of many diverse products including radios, costume jewelry, and car parts. The Age of Plastics had begun.

In 1939, Baekeland sold his business to Union Carbide and retired. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 23, 1944.

Pure Bakelite was brittle and therefore it had to be strengthened with other substances, often cellulose. Unfortunately on mixing it with these fillers the color became dull and opaque. This flaw has resulted in Bakelite being superseded by other plastics.

Leo Hendrik Baekeland is the answer to Guess the Chemist (26)


  1. Anthony Samsel

    Thanks for posting this article. For an old timer like me, It brings back fond memories of my childhood, as I am the inventor of the first Clear Bakelite phenolic plastic. This plastic brought me national notoriety, scholarships, cash, trips and several gold medals, one of which was presented to me by then sitting US Vice President Hubert Humphrey in San Francisco, CA.


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