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Leo Baekeland

Leo Hendrik Baekeland

BornNovember 14 1863
Ghent, Belgium
DiedFebruary 23 1944
Beacon, NY, USA
Known forplastics research

Leo Hendrik Baekeland (Ghent, November 14, 1863 - February 23, 1944) was a Belgian-American chemist who invented Velox photographic paper (1893) and Bakelite (1907), an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic[1][2].

Born in Ghent, Belgium, Baekeland was the son of a cobbler and a maid. Upon completing his doctorate at the University of Ghent, he emigrated to America in 1889[1].

Baekeland sold his patent for Velox photographic paper to the president of Kodak, George Eastman, for $1,000,000[2].

The invention of Bakelite is the beginning of the Age of Plastics[2]. Bakelite was made from phenol (then known as carbolic acid) and formaldehyde. These can be mixed, heated, and then either molded or extruded[1][2]. 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[1].

Bakelite was the first plastic invented that held its shape after being heated. Radios, telephones and electrical insulators were made of Bakelite because of its properties of insulation and heat-resistance. Soon it penetrated nearly all branches of industry[2].


The invention of Bakelite

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 (made from the excretion of lac beetles)[1]. 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-of hard moldable plastic: bakelite[1]. The official name of Bakelite was polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride[2].

Later life

Baekeland became a multi-millionaire as a result of the explosion in the manufacture and use of Bakelite. Baekeland visited England in 1916 and met James Swinburne, who almost ten years earlier had coincidentally experimented with and created a material identical to Bakelite only to find that Baekeland had been awarded the patent the day before. Baekeland made Swinburne the chairman of the new Bakelite Limited, his British subsidiary[citation needed]. Baekeland appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine' on September 22, 1924[2].

Decline and death

As Baekeland got older, he became more eccentric, getting into 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 Florida estate. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in a sanatorium in Beacon, New York. Baekeland is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York[citation needed].


Baekeland told The Literary Digest: "The name is a Netherlandish (Flemish) word meaning 'Land of Beacons,' Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.)

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Chemical Achievers: Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Chemical Heritage Foundation (2005). Retrieved on 2007-11-08.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Amato, Ivan (1999-03-29). Time 100: Leo Baekeland. Retrieved on 2007-11-08.

Further reading

  • Farber, Eduard (1970). "Baekeland, Leo Hendrik". Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 385. ISBN 0684101149. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Leo_Baekeland". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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