Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland FRSE(Hon) (November 14, 1863 –
February 23, 1944) was a Belgian-American chemist. He is best known
for the inventions of Velox photographic paper in 1893 and
1907. He has been called "The Father of the
for his invention of Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable and
versatile plastic, which marked the beginning of the modern plastics
1 Early life
3 Invention of Bakelite
4 Decline and death
5 See also
7 External links
Leo Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium, on November 14, 1863, the
son of a cobbler and a house maid. He told The Literary Digest:
"The name is a Flemish word meaning 'Land of Beacons.'" He spent
much of his early life in Ghent, Belgium. He graduated with honours
Ghent Municipal Technical School and was awarded a
scholarship by the City of Ghent:102 to study chemistry at the
University of Ghent, which he entered in 1880.:13 He acquired a PhD
maxima cum laude at the age of 21.:102 After a brief appointment as
Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the Government Higher Normal
Bruges (1887-1889) he was appointed associate professor of
Ghent in 1889.:14 Baekeland married Céline Swarts,
the daughter of his professor Theodore Swarts and Celine (Platteau)
Swarts, on August 8, 1889. They had three children, George, Nina, and
In 1889, Baekeland and his wife took advantage of a travel scholarship
to visit universities in England and America.:178:14 They
visited New York City, where he met Professor
Charles F. Chandler
Charles F. Chandler of
Columbia University and Richard Anthony, of the E. and H.T. Anthony
photographic company. Professor
Charles F. Chandler
Charles F. Chandler of Columbia
University was influential in convincing Baekeland to stay in the
United States. Baekeland had already invented a process to develop
photographic plates using water instead of other chemicals, which he
had patented in Belgium in 1887;:13 :127–129 Anthony saw
potential in the young chemist and offered him a job.:130
Baekeland worked for the Anthony company for two years, and in 1891
set up in business for himself as a consulting chemist.:130
However, a spell of illness and disappearing funds made him rethink
his actions and he decided to return to his old interest of producing
a photographic paper that would allow enlargements to be printed by
artificial light. After two years of intensive effort he perfected
the process to produce the paper, which he named "Velox"; it was the
first commercially successful photographic paper. At the time the US
was suffering a recession and there were no investors or buyers for
his proposed new product, so Baekeland became partners with Leonard
Jacobi and established the Nepera Chemical Company in Nepera Park,
Yonkers, New York.:131–135
In 1899, Jacobi, Baekeland, and Albert Hahn, a further associate, sold
Nepera to George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Co. for
$750,000. Baekeland earned approximately $215,000 net through
Baekeland's Yonkers Laboratory
With a portion of the money he purchased "Snug Rock", a house in
Yonkers, New York, where he set up his own well-equipped laboratory.
There, he later said, "in comfortable financial circumstances, a free
man, ready to devote myself again to my favorite studies... I enjoyed
for several years that great blessing, the luxury of not being
interrupted in one's favorite work."
One of the requirements of the Nepera sale was, in effect, a
non-compete clause: Baekeland agreed not to do research in photography
for at least 20 years. He would have to find a new area of research.
His first step was to return to Germany in 1900, for a "refresher in
electrochemistry" at the Technical Institute at Charlottenburg.:14
Upon returning to the United States, Baekeland was involved briefly
but successfully in helping
Clinton Paul Townsend and Elon Huntington
Hooker to develop a production-quality electrolytic cell. Baekeland
was hired as an independent consultant, with the responsibility of
constructing and operating a pilot plant.:138–139 Baekeland
developed a stronger diaphragm cell for the chloralkali process, using
woven asbestos cloth filled with a mixture of iron oxide, asbestos
fibre and iron hydroxide. Baekeland's improvements were important to
the founding of
Hooker Chemical Company and the construction of one of
the world's largest electrochemical plants, at Niagara
Invention of Bakelite
Having been successful with Velox, Baekeland set out to find another
promising area for chemical development. As he had done with Velox, he
looked for a problem that offered "the best chance for the quickest
possible results". Asked why he entered the field of synthetic
resins, Baekeland answered that his intention was to make money.
By the 1900s, chemists had begun to recognize that many of the natural
resins and fibers were polymeric, a term introduced in 1833 by Jöns
Adolf von Baeyer
Adolf von Baeyer had experimented with
phenols and aldehydes in 1872, particularly
benzaldehyde. He created a "black guck" which he considered
useless and irrelevant to his search for synthetic dyes.:115
Baeyer's student, Werner Kleeberg, experimented with phenol and
formaldehyde in 1891, but as Baekeland noted "could not crystallize
this mess, nor purify it to constant composition, nor in fact do
anything with it once produced".
Baekeland began to investigate the reactions of phenol and
formaldehyde. He familiarized himself with previous work and
approached the field systematically, carefully controlling and
examining the effects of temperature, pressure and the types and
proportions of materials used.:144–145
The first application that appeared promising was the development of a
synthetic replacement for shellac (made from the excretion of lac
beetles). Baekeland produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac
called "Novolak" but concluded that its properties were inferior. It
never became a big market success, but still exists as Novolac.
The first semi-commercial Bakelizer, from Baekeland's laboratory
Baekeland continued to explore possible combinations of phenol and
formaldehyde, intrigued by the possibility that such materials could
be used in molding. By controlling the pressure and temperature
applied to phenol and formaldehyde, he produced his dreamed-of hard
moldable plastic: Bakelite.
Bakelite was made from phenol, then
known as carbolic acid, and formaldehyde. The chemical name of
Bakelite is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. In compression
molding, the resin is generally combined with fillers such as wood or
asbestos, before pressing it directly into the final shape of the
product. Baekeland's process patent for making insoluble products of
phenol and formaldehyde was filed in July 1907, and granted on
December 7, 1909. In February 1909 Baekeland officially announced his
achievement at a meeting of the New York section of the American
In 1917 Baekeland became a professor by special appointment at
Columbia University.:87 The Smithsonian contains documents
from the County of West Chester Court House in White Plains, NY,
indicating that he was admitted to U. S. Citizenship on December 16,
In 1922, after patent litigation favorable to Baekeland, the General
Bakelite Co., which he had founded in 1910, along with the Condensite
Co. founded by Aylesworth, and the Redmanol Chemical Products Co.
founded by L.V. Redman, were merged into the
Colorful buttons made from Catalin, another variety of phenolic resin
The invention of
Bakelite marks the beginning of the age of
Bakelite was the first plastic invented that retained its
shape after being heated. Radios, telephones and electrical insulators
were made of
Bakelite because of its excellent electrical insulation
and heat-resistance. Soon its applications spread to most branches of
Baekeland received many awards and honors, including the Perkin Medal
in 1916 and the
Franklin Medal in 1940. In 1978 he was
posthumously inducted into the
National Inventors Hall of Fame
National Inventors Hall of Fame at
At Baekeland's death in 1944, the world production of
Bakelite was ca.
175,000 tons, and it was used in over 15,000 different products. He
held more than 100 patents, including processes for the separation
of copper and cadmium, and for the impregnation of wood.
Decline and death
The gravesite of Leo Hendrik Baekeland
As Baekeland grew older he became more eccentric, entering fierce
battles with his son and presumptive heir over salary and other
issues. He sold the General
Bakelite Company to
Union Carbide in 1939
and, at his son's prompting, he retired. He became a recluse, eating
all of his meals from cans and becoming obsessed with developing an
immense tropical garden on his winter estate in Coconut Grove,
Florida. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in a sanatorium in
Beacon, New York
Beacon, New York in 1944. Baekeland is buried in Sleepy Hollow
Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
Barbara Daly Baekeland
List of people from Ghent
^ a b "
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^ Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.
^ a b c d e f g h i j Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). "The Fourth Kingdom:
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^ a b Flynn, Tom. "Yonkers, Home of the
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^ a b Gehani, R. Ray (1998). Management of Technology and Operations.
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^ a b Haynes, Williams (1946). "XIX: Materials for To-morrow". This
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^ Jenkins, Reese V. (1975). Images and Enterprise: Technology and the
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Hopkins University Press. pp. 191–201.
^ Haynes quotes a surprising immediate offer of $1,000,000, when
Baekeland had been hoping for $50,000 at most.
^ Mercelis, Joris (2012). "Leo Baekeland's Transatlantic Struggle for
Bakelite: Patenting Inside and Outside of America". Technology and
Culture. 53 (2): 372. doi:10.1353/tech.2012.0067.
^ a b c d e Kettering, Charles Franklin (1946). Biographical memoir of
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autumn meeting, 1946 (PDF). National Academy of Sciences (U.S.).;
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^ Thomas, Robert E. (1955). Salt & Water, Power & People: A
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Chemical Co. p. 109. ISBN 1258790807.
^ Jensen, William B. (2008). "Ask the Historian: The origin of the
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^ Westman, M.; Laddha, S.; Fifield, L.; Kafentzis, T.; Simmons, K.
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^ Schwarcz, Joe (2011). Dr. Joe's brain sparks : 179 inspiring
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^ Seymour, Raymond B. (1989). "The development of thermosets by Lee
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^ Harding, Robert (1994). "Guide to the Leo H. Baekeland Papers
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^ "County of Westchester". Retrieved 1 September 2015.
^ Fairchild, David (1948). The World Grows Round My Door. New York:
Charles Scriber's Sons. p. 258.
Leo Baekeland Dead, Created Bakelite.
Chemist Noted for Invention
in Plastics. Produced Velox, a Photographic Paper". New York Times.
February 24, 1944. Retrieved 2015-04-14.
^ "Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863 - 1944) - Find A Grave Memorial".
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Leo Hendrik Baekeland.
The Baekeland fund
Leo Baekeland at Find a Grave
Bakelite museum with a short biography of Leo Baekeland
Bakelite Museum of
Time, Mar. 29, 1999,
Chemist LEO BAEKELAND
National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
NPR. Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything Retrieved August 19, 2016.
Awards and achievements
Seymour Parker Gilbert
Cover of Time Magazine
22 September 1924
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