1863, Ghent, Belgium
1944, Beacon, NY
The Baekelite Corporation's logo was the symbol for infinity to represent the multitude of uses for plastic.
Photos: (left) Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Library; (right) WGBH
This Belgian immigrant innovated plastic, a substance that would come to define the 20th century and transform people's lives worldwide.
The son of a shoemaker and a maid, Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1863. As a young boy, he read Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, sparking a love of America that would last his entire life. At his mother's urging, Baekeland studied diligently in order to attend the University of Ghent. A voracious student, young Leo studied chemistry and physics. By age 24, he was a young academic star, teaching at the university in Bruges. He was also dabbling in business, inventing new, easy-to-use photographic printing supplies.
Baekeland fell in love with Celine Swarts, the daughter of his university mentor, and won a traveling scholarship that took the young couple to New York. He never looked back. Still working in the field of photographic chemistry, he invented Velox, a photographic printing paper that did not require natural light for development. Baekeland made a fortune in 1899 when George Eastman paid $750,000 -- over $15.5 million in 2002 dollars -- for the invention.
In 1907, while experimenting to find a substitute for shellac, Baekeland produced the first thermoset plastic, a synthetic substance he called Bakelite. The extraordinary resin was so soft that it could be molded into shape and then permanently hardened under extreme pressure. A manufacturer's dream, it was quick and inexpensive to work with, would not catch fire or break, and did not conduct electricity. Bakelite's versatility gave the product a life beyond its initial uses as a varnish, a binder for abrasives, and a coating for electrical oils. It would rapidly become the material of choice for a wide array of manufactured products.
The Age of Plastics
Granted a patent in 1909, Baekeland launched a full-blown marketing campaign. Soon there were Bakelite radios, cars, appliances, costume jewelry, and smoker's accessories. By 1926, Baekeland's patents began to expire and an avalanche of similar substances came to market. It was just the beginning of the age of plastics. When his son, George Washington Baekeland, chose not to work in the business, Baekeland sold his company to Union Carbide for $16.5 million ($202.8 million in 2002 dollars). He died in Beacon, New York in 1944, at the age of eighty.