Leo Baekeland

From Academic Kids

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

Born in Ghent, Belgium, Baekeland was the son of a cobbler and a maid. After completing his doctorate at the university of his native city, he emigrated to America in 1889, inspired by the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Baekeland sold his patent for Velox photographic paper to the president of Kodak, George Eastman, for $750,000.

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.

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

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 (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. The official name of Bakelite was polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride.

Later life

Missing image
1101240922_400.jpg
Cover of Time Magazine (September 22, 1924)

Baekeland became a multimillionaire 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. Baekeland appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine on September 22, 1924.

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, at his son's prompting, retired, and eventually 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.

Baekeland's great-grandson, Anthony Baekeland spent several years in a psychiatric hospital after murdering his mother, Barbara Daly Baekeland; ironically, he suffocated himself with a plastic bag in 1981.

External links

pl:Leo Hendrik Baekeland nl:Leo Baekeland

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