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Leo Baekeland

Leo Baekeland (1863 - 1944) was Belgian-born American chemist who invented Velox photographic paper (1893) and Bakelite (1907), an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic.

The invention of Bakelite is considered the beginning of the Age of Plastics. Bakelite was made from phenol (then known as carbolic acid) and formaldehyde. These can be mixed, heated, and then either molded or extruded. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry winning German Adolf von Baeyer had experimented with this material in 1872, but did not complete its development. Bakelite took the industry by storm after 1907.

Radios, telephones and electrical insulators were made of Bakelite due to its insulating and heat-resistant properties. Soon it penetrated nearly all branches on industry.

How was bakelite invented?

When asked why he entered the field of synthetic resins, Baekeland answered "to make money". His first objective was to find a replacement for shellac (at that time made from the shells of lac beetles). Chemists had begun to recognize that many of the natural resins and fibers were polymers. Baekeland began to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde. He first produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac (called "Novolak" that never became a market success). Then he turned to developing a binder for asbestos, which at that time was molded with rubber. By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, he could produce his dreamed hard moldable plastic: bakelite.