Leo Baekeland (1863 – 1944)

Leo Baekeland was a Belgian chemist whose researches did much to shape the material culture of the mid-20th century. He read chemistry at the University of Ghent, and continued his studies in Great Britain and the United States and at the Technische Hochschule, Charlottenberg in Germany.

He moved to the United States in 1889, where his first major innovation was Velox photographic paper, which enabled black and white photographic prints to be made using artificial light. The process was sold in 1898 to the Eastman Kodak company, and was the basis of both professional and popular photography for much of the 20th century. He collaborated with Clinton P Townsend in the development of a new type of electrolytic cell for producing caustic soda and chlorine from salt that led to establishment of Hooker Electrochemical Co at Niagara Falls.

His most important innovation was Bakelite (Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride), a polymeric plastic made from phenol and formaldehyde, the first all-synthetic plastic, and the first to hold its shape after being heated. The basic invention was made in 1907 and it was publicly unveiled in 1909. Bakelite was used in radio housings, distributor caps, telephone hand pieces, electric plugs, jewellery, cameras, ash trays, fountain pens and many other characteristic artefacts of the mid-20th century.

Baekeland established the General Bakelite Co in the United States in 1909, and sold it to Union Carbide in 1939. In Germany he collaborated with a company that treated railway sleepers with tar and had phenol as by-product, and established a factory at Erkner, outside Berlin. He visited England in 1916, and made James Swinburne whom he had beaten to the patent, chair of Bakelite UK, the British subsidiary.

Baekeland was an enthusiastic advocate of the motorcar and made a pioneering motoring tour of Europe in 1906. Bakelite is commemorated in a museum in Somerset, England.