The Story of Bakelite, the First Synthetic Plastic

Leo Baekeland (1863-1944). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Plastics are so prevalent today throughout the world that we rarely give them a second thought. The heat resistant, non-conductive, easily molded material holds the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the toys we play with, computers we work with and many of the objects we buy. It’s everywhere, as prevalent as wood and metal. 

Where did it come from? 

The first commercially used synthetic plastic was Bakelite. It was invented by a successful scientist named Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863, Baekeland immigrated to the United States in 1889. His first major invention was Velox, a photographic printing paper that could be developed under artificial light. Baekeland sold the rights to Velox to George Eastman and Kodak for for one million dollars in 1899. 

He then started his own laboratory in Yonkers, New York, where he invented Bakelite in 1907.  Made by combining phenol, a common disinfectant, with formaldehyde, Bakelite was original conceived of as a synthetic substitute for the shellac used in electronic insulation. However, the strength and mold-ability of the substance—combined with the low cost of producing the material made it idea for manufacturing. In 1909, Bakelite was introduced to the general public at a chemical conference and interest in the plastic was immediate. Bakerlite was used to manufacture everything from telephone handsets and costume jewelry to bases and sockets for lights bulbs to automobile engine parts and washing machine components. 

Fittingly, when Baekeland founded the Bakelite Corp, the company adopted a logo that incorporated the sign for infinity and a tag line that read: The Material of a Thousand Uses. That was an understatement. 

Over time, Baekeland obtained about 400 patents relating to his creation. By 1930, his company occupied 128-acre plant in New Jersey. The material fell out of favor, however, because of a adaptive issues. Bakelite was fairly brittle in its pure form. To make it more malleable and durable, it was strengthened with additives. Unfortunately, the additives dulled the hue colorized Bakelite.  When other plastics that followed in Bakelite’s footsteps were found to “hold” color better, the first plastic was abandoned. 

In 1944, Baekeland, the man who ushered in the age of plastic, died at the age of eighty years in Beacon, N.Y.