|Leo Hendrick Baekeland (1863-1944)
Leo Hendrick Baekeland was born on 14 November 1863 in Ghent, Belgium, of working class parents Charles and Rosalie Baekeland. From an early age he showed academic brilliance. At evening classes he won medals in chemistry, physics, mechanics and economics. At the age of 17, he was awarded a scholarship to Ghent University and by the age of 21 had obtained his Doctor of Science degree. In 1899, he was appointed an Associate Professor at the University and this was followed by further academic honours which finally led to the award of a travelling scholarship.
Baekeland decided that his future lay in the United States of America. For many years, he had been interested in photography and had undertaken numerous experiments with photograohic chemicals. This resulted in his invention of Velox photographic paper which transformed the world of popular photograph and led to his selling the process to Kodak Eastman for a huge sum of money. He was now financially secure and able to pursue whatever scientific or business interest took his fancy.
One of the things that took his fancy was the resinous product formed when two common chemicals – phenol and formaldehyde – are reacted together. He was not the first to take an interest in the subject but, even so, it took several years of patient investigation before he could control the process which he revealed to the world in his USA patent of 18 February 1907 and in later corresponding patents in many other countries. Baekeland called his new synthetic resin Bakelite and he produced it in three forms which he called Bakelite A, B & C according to its chemical and physical characteristics. Baekeland claimed without exaggeration that his product was ‘the material of a thousand uses’. Phenolic resins, moulding powders, high-pressure laminates, varnishes, adhesives and lacquers were among the important products resulting from his discovery. They could not have come at a better time because huge potential markets such as automobiles, radio and telephony were beginning to change the world. To market Bakelite, he formed in 1910 the General Bakelite Company in the USA and arranged for licensees in other parts of the world.
When Baekeland died in 1944, his products were in use by nearly every industry and his life’s work had been recognised by numerous scientific and academic bodies throughout the world. For many people, he is ‘the father of the plastics industry’.