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Measuring cylinder

Leo Baekeland (1863-1944) studied Chemistry at Ghent University. His rather practical, business-like attitude clashed with his mentor Théodore Swarts’ more academic stance. He immigrated to America at the end of the 19th century. In America, he developed Bakelite, the first-ever plastic made from synthetic components. This substance can be used for numerous industrial and commercial applications. The scientific instruments in front of you were made from Bakelite. Baekeland designed them for Frédéric Swarts, Théodore’s son, Baekeland’s brother in law, and a noted scientist in his own right.
  • Maker: Leo Baekeland
  • Date: ca. 1909
  • Location: New York, USA
  • Collection: History of Sciences
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Bakelite owed its enormous success to a combination of properties: it is chemically inert, an electrical insulator and heat resistant (up to more than 400°C).

Who was Leo Baekeland?

Leo Baekeland is famous worldwide as the inventor of Bakelite, the first entirely synthetic material. He was a Doctor of Natural Sciences and assistant to Théodore Swarts at the Laboratory for General Chemistry in Ghent. In 1889, he moved to the United [A1] States, where he set up a company in 1893 to develop and produce Velox photographic paper.

What is Bakelite?

Bakelite was the very first plastic that was 100% synthetic. The plastic is made in the reaction between phenol (C2H5OH) and formaldehyde (CH2O), which is why it is also called a phenolic resin. Bakelite is resistant to heat and corrosive chemicals, but it is also brittle because the material is full of cavities. For this reason, a filler is added during the production process to fill the cavities.

How did Baekeland get the idea to develop Bakelite?

Leo Baekeland mainly used his knowledge of chemistry to develop practical, tangible applications. Demand for electrical insulators rose in the second half of the 19th century. This inspired Baekeland to find a synthetic alternative for the expensive and relatively rare product shellac. Enter Bakelite!

Why was Bakelite so successful?

Bakelite owed its enormous success to a combination of properties: it is chemically inert, an electrical insulator and heat resistant (up to more than 400°C). Furthermore, it was relatively simple and cheap to make, and this sent the number of industrial applications for Bakelite skyrocketing. Today, Bakelite is used in the automotive, metal, paper and aircraft industries. In fact, the screw tops on some perfume bottles and the handles of pans are still made from Bakelite.

What is Catalin?

Catalin is the brand name of a phenolic resin patented in 1927 by the American Catalin Corporation of New York City. Catalin is very similar to Bakelite but no filler is used, making it less robust. In fact, it was Leo Baekeland who made these three objects, but he used an earlier form of Bakelite to which no filler had been added either. That means they resemble Catalin more than the Bakelite he would go on to develop. Nevertheless, Baekeland used these and nine other objects to present Bakelite to the general public.

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