Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Baekeland makes Bakalite

‘I consider this days very successful work which has put me on the knot of several new and interesting products which may have a wide application as plastics and varnishes. Have applied for a patent for a substance which I shall call Bakalite.’ This is Leo Baekeland, born 160 years ago today and sometimes referred to as ‘The Father of the Plastics Industry’, writing in his diary on the very day he named the first synthetic plastic - a substance which would soon be known as Bakelite and take over the world. 

Baekeland, the son of a cobbler, was born in Ghent, Belgium, on 14 November 1863. He studied at Ghent Municipal Technical School and the University of Ghent, receiving a doctorate in chemistry aged only 21. He taught in Bruges and then back at the university until 1889. He married Céline Swarts that same year, and they would have two children. Together they emigrated to the US. There he worked for a photographic firm before launching his own company to manufacture Velox - his own invention, a photographic paper that could be developed under artificial light (indeed it was the first commercially successful photographic paper). In 1899, he and his partner, Leonard Jacobi, sold their Velox venture (Nepera Chemical Company) to the inventor George Eastman for $1m. With some of the money he purchased a house in Yonkers, New York, where heset up his own research lab.

Having signed a non-compete clause with Eastman, prohibiting him from photography research, Baekeland journeyed to Germany for a refresher course in electrochemistry. On returning to New York he was in demand as a consultant becoming involved in various successful ventures. But, in 1905, he began searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac (a natural secretion from a bug which had many uses), a search which led him to the discovery of Bakelite, a thermosetting plastic (produced from formaldehyde and phenol at high temperature and pressure). It was the first plastic invented that retained its shape after being heated, and it also held excellent electrical insulation properties. A process patent was awarded in 1909.

In time, his invention led Baekeland - dubbed The Father of the Plastics Industry - to receiving many honours. He served as president of the American Chemical Society in 1924. At the time of his death, in 1944, Bakelite was being used in over 15,000 different products, and world production was totalling around 175,000 tons. By then, too, Baekeland held more than 100 patents. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the National Academy of Sciences

Baekeland kept detailed diaries all his life, 62 of them, from 1907 to 1934, are held by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Archives. Before they were given to the Smithsonian, Céline Karraker, a granddaughter of Baekeland, read the diaries taking meticulous notes and intending to write a biography of her grandfather. They were also read by Carl Kaufmann, husband of Céline Karraker’s step sister, Ruth Wyman, who used the diaries to flesh out his master’s thesis, published as Grand Duke, Wizard and Bohemian: A Biographical Profile of Leo H. Baekeland.

More recently, however, the diaries have been digitalised and transcribed by Smithsonian Digital Volunteers, and are freely available online. A pdf of volume 1, for example, can be found here, with this intro: ‘The diary entries discuss his experiments during the time period in which he filed process patents for Bakelite. This diary [. . .] details Leo H. Baekeland’s daily activities. He writes often of his visits and discussions, as well as the subjects of correspondence he has written and received. Furthermore, Baekeland’s diary sheds light on the use and distance of travel by automobile in the early twentieth century. In the notes, Baekeland explains increasing time spent in the laboratory at the end of 1907 into 1908. The diary spans the spring months through the winter.’ Here are a few extracts, including the first mention of Bakalite. (Baekeland continued to use the term ’Bakalite’ in his diary for some time but he first started also using the term ‘Bakelite’ in November 1907.)

18-21 June 1907
‘Spent all days in my laboratory and found many interesting things. An exceedingly active period which allowed me to learn many mysterious reactions with which Thurlow has been struggling unsuccessfully since over a year. See laboratory notes marks CLS and BKL.

I consider this days very successful work which has put me on the knot of several new and interesting products which may have a wide application as plastics and varnishes. Have applied for a patent for a substance which I shall call Bakalite. Have found also a very practical solution for improving Novolak and make it practical as a varnish. All this work has been carried out while Thurlow was in Detroit showing to Berry Brothers how to deodorize Novolak. I am sure he will be surprised to hear about all what I have accomplished in so short a time.’

3 April 1907
‘I spent the morning at Westchester Hat Co. Yonkers and made an experiment so as to determine whether I could felt asbestos fibre in one of the hat machines so as to produce a cheaper diaphragm than the asbestos cloth diaphragm we are using now at Niagara Falls. The experiment was thoroughly satisfactory. In a very few seconds the whole operation was finished. I used asbestos fibre No.1 of the Johns Mandeville Asbestos Co. I intend to have the experiment repeated directly on flat cathode plates in such a way that they are placed above an opening on a flat table with suction below and a distributer of fibre above. It occurs to me that in order to utilize shorter fibre, we might stretch cheesecloth either free or over the cathode plate and thus produce an initial support for the asbestos fibre. Wetting and pressing the surface favors felting. I shall try wetting with gummy solutions or perhaps silicate of soda. We might also apply the iron paint we are using now at Niagara Falls so as to bind everything together. It occurs to me that in order to counteract the difference in hydrostatic pressure at the diaphragm in the cells we might make the lower part of the diaphragm thicker than the upper part. I have given instructions to Mr. Rowland and Marsh to carry out some further experiments on the subject. Afterwards I intend to apply for a patent.

In the afternoon went to the office of D. & F. Co. and wrote some letters.’

13 July 1907
‘A very active day which I spent in my laboratory on further research work on Bakalite. Thurlow worked on acetone formaldehyde and acetone - phenol products. See laboratory notes’

14 July 1907
‘Sunday. Started very early in my laboratory. Obtained  the first large sample of Bakalite in a bottle. The subject looks very encouraging. I believe I have an excellent thing. and it would be a great disappointment if my patent application had been preceeded by an earlier invention of somebody else.’

15 July 1907
‘Got a telegram from Townsend that Bakalite patent has been filed at Patent Office last Saturday.’

16 July 1907
‘Hard at work in laboratory.’

17 July 1907
‘Another busy day in laboratory further research work in relation to Bakalite.’

18 July 1907
‘Another hot sultry day. But I do not mind it and thoroughly appreciate the luxury of being allowed to stay home in shirt sleeves and without a collar. How about these Slave millionaires in wall street who have to go to their money making pursuit notwithstanding the sweltering heat. All day spent in laboratory - Bakalite’

25 October 1907
‘Went to N.Y. with Mr. Oppenheimer in his Limousine. Met Prof Ira Woolson at Columbia and asked him to test Bakalized Wood for me. He seemed much interested in my subject when I showed him Bakalite and told him the wood was impregnated with it. He gave me some black gum to try the process on it.

Spent remainder of morning in Prof. Tuckers laboratory testing conductivity of Graphite-Bakalite. He too seemed much interested when I showed him my samples.

Went to Wall Street where I was astonished to see mounted police men and rather dense crowds. Run on the Trust Co of America in front of office of Development & Funding Co. Good metered patient crowd line extending overlay the block until beyond custom house. Probably mostly small depositors judging from looks and appearance. Great uneasiness everywhere on account of financial condition.

Received two first copies of my book which has appeared yesterday. Consulted with Marsh & Lansing three hours, (chge 1/2 day)

Hook, Marsh & myself went to Delmonicos for lunch. Wilcox secretary of Public Utilities commission came to our table. General talk everywhere. The unsatisfactory financial condition. Asked my payment of my last bill to Hooker but he asked that I should wait and be satisfied with half of it.

Evening went to Toch’s where took supper he told me all his cash was tied up at Knickerbocker Trust Co which had suspended payments. He was rather more depressed than he ever appeared to me. Lewis fetched me at Chemists club with motor car . Took Bogurt and Toch home and we arrived here about midnight.’

23 November 1907
‘Spent all day writing letters wrote one to Quigley of Armstrong Cork Co telling him how cork Bakelite could be made in a continuous process by feeding continuously hot granulated cork with Bakelite then compressing and let the hot mass harden by itself.

All afternoon was utilized for laboratory and making a condensed report on the result of my wood impregnation tests.

Evening Mandel & wife came to eat mussels. After supper Branchi & wife joined. Showed Mandel in my lab alone my products and told him how Bakalite was made.’

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