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Bakelite was invented and developed by the Belgian/American scientist Dr. L.H. Baekeland (1863-1944). He was born and educated in Ghent in northern Belgium and immigrated to America in 1889. In 1893 he invented "Velox" photographic paper (the first that could be developed using artificial light), and set up a company to manufacture and market it. He sold the company and the rights to Eastman Kodak in 1899 for a reported $1,000,000. This gave him substantial funding for his subsequent research, which ultimately led to the discovery of Bakelite in 1907.
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The First “Natural” Thermoplastics
As early as the mid-1800’s scientists had recognized and had begun to experiment with polymers, the long strands of molecular material that occur in natural plants. The most abundant and easily obtainable polymer is cellulose, and the scientists and chemists of the day carried out hundreds of different experiments, using various solutions and preparations of cellulose. In 1855 an English inventor, Alexander Parkes, developed what was probably the first “commercial” plastic, by mixing nitrocellulose with camphor and producing “Parkesine” (ever modest these inventors!). It was a hard, flexible, and transparent material. Unfortunately, Mr. Parkes went bankrupt trying to develop and produce it.
The patent was bought by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt, who wanted to use the material to produce billiard balls, which were then manufactured from ivory, an increasingly rare and expense resource. Hyatt was successful in this enterprise, and afterward, he and his brother Isaiah extended their experiments and in 1870 developed probably the most famous of the cellulose thermoplastics, Celluloid, named by Isaiah when it went into production in 1872. It was used in the manufacture of a multitude of objects, especially anything that had previously been made from any type of exotic animal horn, which, like the prime horn material, ivory, was becoming more difficult and expensive to source. Its most memorable use came with the advent of “The Movies” where its thin flexible properties, its transparency, and its ability to accept surface photographic developers made it the ideal medium to produce reels of film.
Celluloid, however, did have some major drawbacks: it was highly flammable, it was fragile, it discolored in strong sunlight, and it deteriorated with age, becoming extremely brittle. Nowadays, advances in chemical engineering have eliminated or ameliorated some of these faults, but at the time it was beyond the capability of the day.
Although it was a mammoth discovery and quite filled the niche at the time, the requirement was still open for a more stable, robust, and easily molded material. However, it would be nearly forty years before that material, “Bakelite,” would appear on the scene.
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The First Synthetic Thermosetting Plastic
Like a surprising number of other "accidental" discoveries, the original premise for the research was not for a thermoplastic, but came instead from Dr. Baekelands’ attempts to develop a synthetic resin to replace “shellac” (a solution of ethyl alcohol and a natural resin produced by the female lac beetle) which was employed variously as a varnish, a wood stain, and sealer, etc. However, two of its properties (being non-hygroscopic and a natural insulator) led to its extensive use as a waterproofing/insulation coating within the burgeoning electrical industry.
He did develop a soluble phenol-formaldehyde varnish which he called "Novolak,"’ but it was not a commercial success, and so he expanded his research to explore other possibilities of the phenol-formaldehyde combination. He determined that a binding agent was required to enable the mixture to solidify in a stable form. Experimentation established that a wood flour binder and careful regulation of applied temperature and pressure would produce a hard, mouldable, stable thermoplastic (a plastic that does not melt, degrade, change shape, etc. with a re-application of heat).
On February the 5th, 1909 he announced his invention, Bakelite, to the American Chemical Society, and effectively opened “The Age of Synthetic Plastics,” inaugurating an industry that would, at its height, employ more than 60 million people worldwide.
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The material was almost instantly successful, especially within the embryonic electrical industry. Here was a substance that was non-flammable (unlike Celluloid), could be precision molded, was an excellent insulator, was barely hygroscopic, and did not deteriorate with the re-application of heat, and as production and demand increased, became really quite economical.
It should be remembered that at this time, electricity was “the new kid on the block.” It was a dangerous commodity, as people didn’t really know how to “treat the beast,” even electricians. One of the prime causes of electrical accidents at the time was the failure of the mountings of electrical contacts, be they contact blocks, switches, junction boxes, et al., which led in turn to short circuiting, overheating, and fire - especially if the prime insulator itself ignited. Imagine the difference a non-flammable mounting of Bakelite made to the safety of the installation.
Similarly, everyday objects like radios relied on some quite high voltages to power thermionic valves (vacuum tubes); the safety factor introduced by mounting the complete assembly into a highly insulated, non-flammable, molded case could not be overestimated.
The major stumbling block to the proliferation of Bakelite products was the fact that it was normally only available in very drab colors. (See the radio image above). This all changed from 1927, when the existing patent expired and all sorts of competitors could experiment with the original formulae, modifying the constituents, adding new ones, etc. A flurry of multi-colored Bakelite objects appeared, household items, board games, cameras, telephones, hairdressing machines, jewelry, automotive parts, and on and on and on. This glut of production also brought the price down, enabling the everyday items to be within everyone’s means.
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Bakelite has been with us now for over a century, and it was used for so many things, the majority of which have long since been discarded or superseded. Its longevity, however, has ensured that many of the pieces still exist, and a thriving market for the older, more exotic items is flourishing. There are even museums, such as the one pictured in Williton, Somerset in the U.K., dedicated to the display and preservation of multitudes of some of these long forgotten icons.
Although the use of Bakelite, per se, has diminished over the years, as new and better plastics have been invented and developed, it is still on the playing field, nominally as an insulating material, specially laminated, using such layers as paper, canvas, linen, nylon, etc., for the differing properties that the diverse components can offer. These days it is normally produced in sheet, rod, and tube format, and cut or machined to the required shape.