Inventor of non-flammable plastics in 1909
"Unless I am very much mistaken, this invention will prove important in the future."
On September 24, 1924, Time Magazine ran a black and white cover of Dr. Leo Baekeland with the famous phrase: “It will not burn. It will not melt.”
These immortal words described an invention that arguably built the modern world around us and demonstrated the remarkable tenacity and foresight of a Belgium immigrant who saw the future AND then set and about inventing it using his personal research lab. The result would be fame and fortune but it took a single moment of clarity to reach this point which I will reveal further below.
17 years prior to the Time cover, the world took its first adolescent strides into the industrial era when the brilliant, stubborn inventor finally managed to achieve what many thought previously was an impossible task: The first-ever synthetic plastic gently swirled downwards and settled triumphantly at the bottom of a test tube signaling the beginning of a new creative age which would ultimately lead to the development of over 15,000 products that would BUILD our modern planet including light bulb sockets, car parts, appliances, electrical wire insulation and cutting edge inventions in the world of electronics and aerospace.
The man of the hour was Dr. Leo Baekeland, whose discovery and evolution of the world’s first synthetic material, Bakelite, would earn him the moniker “The Father of Industrial Plastics.” His invention, exploits and tenacity in the early part of the 20th Century are being revisited by both inventors and filmmakers who see his creative process as a template for both personal and financial success in the fast-paced Internet Age we all live in.
In fact, a recent documentary seeking to understand his achievements is already being heralded as a brilliant journey into the mind and times of Dr, Baekeland whose invention is considered a National Historic Chemical Landmark, a seminal achievement in the history of chemistry.
While plastics has been both lauded and derided for its benefits and pitfalls for industrial products and the environment respectively, many scientists will point out that the class of substances lumped together under the plastics postmark is so broad and diverse that to condemn or condone them categorically makes no sense.
“Moreover, the field is evolving rapidly, as researchers strive to spin plastics from renewable sources like sugar cane and grass clippings in lieu of fossil fuels, and to outfit their creations with the chemical grace to decay once discarded,” said a recent New York Times article.
Whether your love it or hate it, it may always be egarded as one of the greatest inventions of all time and worth understanding as you, the inventor, go about making your own ideas a reality with the United States Patent Office (USPTO).
While I briefly touched upon his exploits in How to Stack the Odds in Favor of the American Inventor, it is worth revisiting the man, the inventor and the pioneer, who gives American entrepreneurs and business leaders an inspirational and practical flight path to getting ideas off the ground and into production.
We can literally pry his mind open because he meticulously compiled diaries – 62 of them spanning 1907 to 1934 – that are currently housed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History archives in Washington, D.C.
While Dr. Baekeland grew up in Belgium, he was inspired by early American greats such as fellow inventor Benjamin Franklin. He found himself drawn to photographic chemistry and finally graduated maxima cum laude with a Ph.D from the University of Ghent.
In 1899, he found himself drawn to the entrepreneurial landscapes of the United States, where after a brief stint with photo giant Agfa Gevaert, set himself up as an independent chemical consultant, unwilling to be confined and shaped by corporate policies as he contemplated some of the key challenges facing a young industrial America.
While he planned to devote his time to developing a number of chemical processes which he had devised, he made a key mistake which perhaps many of my clients would sympathize and nod their heads in agreement with: He scattered his attention on too many subjects at the same time, ultimately diluting favorable outcomes in both product discovery and profit. To make matters worse, a serious illness took hold of him which ultimately led to a key insight and decision: “While I was hovering 'twixt life and death, with all my cash gone and the uncomfortable sentiment of rapidly increasing debts, I had abundant time for sober reflection. It then dawned upon me that instead of keeping- too many irons in the fire, I should concentrate my attention upon one single thing which would give me the best chance for the quickest possible results.”
In particular, he realized he needed an initial commercial winner in order to scale greater mountains. A similar analogy can perhaps be found in the filmmaking industry where Director Steven Spielberg postponed some of his artistic persuasions to gain short-term commercial profit (and insulation from Movie Studio interference) with the blockbuster movie, Jaws, which went to make millions. This would give him the freedom to work on more personal projects including Close Encounters of The Third Kind, which would also garner him international praise.
Dr. Baekeland’s route to freedom was to invent Velox, an improved photographic paper that could be developed in gaslight rather than sunlight. It gradually took hold in the marketplace but he learned an important lesson before he struck his first, big payday:
“I had been too optimistic in believing that the photographers were ready to abandon the old slow processes of making photographic prints. I had to find out then how difficult it is to teach anything new to people after once they got use to older methods. Even my best friends tried to dissuade me from continuing my stubborn efforts. I had also not foreseen manufacturing difficulties, but I gradually managed to overcome them.”
And overcome them he did when in 1898 the Eastman Kodak Company purchased Baekeland’s invention for a reputed $750,000.
This early independent success with Velox, allowed him to build and set up a research lab on his private property which would become the engine room for his creative pursuits and inventions, including plastic. The importance of this “private space” in his later discoveries cannot be understated: “In this way I enjoyed for several years that great blessing, the luxury of not being interrupted in one's favorite work.”
It’s also worth noting that at this point in his life he was 43 years old, still galvanized with a passion to change the world and profit from his chemistry skills. Additionally, he was not beyond re-learning key tenants or themes in his chosen field of chemistry.
In one example, he returned to Germany at the turn of the Century for what he called a "refresher" in the science of electrochemistry. He spent a winter there in the electrochemical laboratory of the Technological Institute of Charlottenburg brushing up on his knowledge of the subject. And when he returned to New Yor he fitted his laboratory with electrochemical equipment for further study.
This particular period of experimentation yielded two of the earliest of the many patents which Baekeland took out. In particular it led to the formation in 1903 of the Hooker Electrochemical Company and the erection at Niagara Falls of one of the largest electrochemical plants in the world. For several years afterwards Baekeland continued to be connected with that company in a consulting capacity.
It was the experience above which yielded another life-long insight for the inventor as he tested small-scale applications of the plant in his laboratory prior to its actual construction:
Dr. Leo Baekeland, Chemist & Inventor
“ Commit your blunders on a small scale and make your profits on a large scale.”
The groundwork had now been laid for the main event and the primary focus of this article: A revolution in synthetic polymers that would quite literally change the world.
It’s important to realize that his invention, as so often is the case, was built upon the previous work and discoveries of others in his field. In fact, it could be argued that his predecessors were virtually on the cusp of uncovering the alchemy for plastic production but lacked a key ingredient to make it across the finish line:
The foundation for the discovery of plastic rested upon finding how to direct the action of formaldehyde upon phenols in proper channels, ultimately materializing into the famous trademarked "Bakelite,” which he partly named after himself.
However, the the condensation of aldehydes with the phenols was not a new reaction at all. Adolph Bayer had uncovered this process way back in 1872. However, the condensation of formaldehyde with phenol does not of itself give rise to bakelite. Only under very special conditions can the plastic compound be obtained and several chemists had tried in vain to obtain the right mix.
Where they failed, Dr. Baekeland prevailed. After five years of intensive, focused and deliberate effort - including several setbacks and failures - he finally produced the amber-like and highly resistant properties of bakelite, the world’s first phenolic resin or non-flammable plastic. The laborious systematic investigation which he carefully applied to all factors of the reaction between formaldehyde and phenol, allowed him to dissect and separate key steps in the process. Eventually he found that pressure was valuable in controlling the reaction, and that by the presence of ammonia or other base compounds he could spread the reaction out over a longer period and so could stop it at any stage he wished by cooling.
The ability to control the reaction in steps, contributed to the materialization of the new product, bakelite, whose use would lead to virtually limitless incantations in the industrial world.
When considering his rivals he once said: “They should have succeeded, but they wouldn't."
He had in effect hammered against an inviolable wall until he broke down the barriers and achieved the result that eluded his peers. This stubbornness, along with earlier lessons, turned him into not only a superhuman inventor of the 20th Century but a savvy entrepreneur who understood the implications of his earlier mistakes as an inventor.
In a calculating manner, he sat down and considered the way forward for Bakelite in the commercial sector, including concerns about intellectual property.
Dr. Leo Baekeland , Chemist & Inventor
“I firmly intended to escape the recurrence of business occupations, as in my Velox days. So I planned, instead of manufacturing myself, to grant licenses to established manufacturing concerns, especially experienced in plastics. But I soon was confronted with a repetition of my former experience with Velox: that it was very difficult to teach new methods to men who had acquired routine in older processes.”
Frustrated he noted that the preparation of the new resinoid and its molding compositions, which seemed so simple and trivial to him, appeared either very difficult or needlessly complicated to others.
“Reluctantly I had to start manufacturing the raw materials in a sufficiently advanced stage so that the users had only so that the users had only to complete the operation of molding and polymerization.”
This prompted him to create the General Bakelite Company whose role was to manufacture and distribute the raw materials for making bakelite parts. As President, he was noted for his intelligent organization and careful selection of associates, freeing up his time and energy to maintain his interest in research, scientific, patriotic, and educational calls which were made upon him.
He later published about 75 papers, letters, and addresses related to the invention of Bakelite, which to this day is considered a monumental contribution to modern science.
But his intellect did not just span research, invention and manufacture: He was a formidable figure in protecting his intellectual property over the years, except for initial blockbuster product, Velox, which he sold outright to Eastman Kodak.
Dr. Baekeland stridently set about taking out patents to protect his discoveries—more than a hundred patents in all, including domestic and foreign.
Dr. Leo Baekeland
"I was a firm believer in the worth of the patent system and much interested in proper patent procedure. One of the evidences of a successful patent is infringement. So I had to go through the experience of almost every successful inventor of defending my rights before the courts. Fortunately, I won every case. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to find among my former rivals many of the excellent men whom I count today as my dearest friends and most distinguished collaborators in our corporation"
He was a member, and for one year chairman, of the Committee on Patents of the National Research Council, and a number of his published papers relate to what he believed were needed modifications of the United States Patent System.
It is, however, worth pointing out that in 1927 the Bakelite patent expired and was acquired by the Catalin Corporation that same year. They refined and tweaked the process, renaming the material Catalin.
While Dr. Baekeland had patented his original process in 1909, a later high demand for molded materials skyrocketed prompting him to allow the patent to expire. This was probably a mistake because the Catalin Corporation re-introduced this cast phenol-formaldehyde resin in 1928 and by 1933 total sales were 2,800,000 pounds.
A few years later in 1941 that number had increased to 6,000,000 pounds. Within a very short time there were many other companies who licensed and used the formula to produce cast phenolic resins and paid Catalin a 4 percent royalty in order to do so.
This final lesson in patent licensing was probably not lost on Dr. Baekeland who finally passed away just four years later in 1945. He left behind an astounding body of research, achievements, patents and lessons as to how an inventor and innovator should approach both the creative and commercial processes.
In a biographical memoir on Dr. Baekeland by Charles F. Kettering, he noted some of his personal traits and interests which surely played into his success as an innovator.
These include, but are not limited to:
- A love for simplicity
- Woke up extremely early; retired early
- At work before his employees
- An extremely hard worker in both the physical and mental realms
- Excellent conversationalist
- A social person
- A lifelong interest in photography
- A great interest in motion pictures and film
- Loved motoring and cross-country tours
- A strong interest in sailing and yachting
Since we started this article with reference to the famous Time Magazine cover on Dr. Baekeland, it’s perhaps fitting to reference the rest of the piece which outlined Bakelite's promise at the time and puts his invention into perspective.
“Bakelite.” Superficially, it is a composition, born of fire and mystery, having the rigor and brilliance of glass, the luster of amber from the Isles. Poetically, it is a resin formed from equal parts of phenol and formaldehyde, in the presence of a base, by the application of heat. It will not burn. It will not melt. It is used in pipe stems, fountain pens, billiard balls, telephone fixtures, castanets, radiator caps, etc.. In liquid form, it is a varnish. Jellied, it is a glue. Those familiar with its possibilities claim that in a few years it will be embodied in every mechanical facility of modern civilization. From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush, until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray, and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses, will be made of this material of a thousand purposes. Books and papers will be set up in Bakelite type. People will read Bakeliterature, Bakelitigate their cases, offer Bakeliturgies for their dead, bring young into the world in Bakelitters.”