The birth of modern plastics
In 1907, Leo Hendrick Baekeland, a Belgian scientist working in New York, discovered and
patented a revolutionary new synthetic material. His invention, which he named 'Bakelite', was
of enormous technological importance, and effectively launched the modern plastics industry.
The term 'plastic' comes from the Greek plassein, meaning 'to mould'. Some plastics are derived
from natural sources, some are semi-synthetic (the result of chemical action on a natural
substance), and some are entirely synthetic, that is, chemically engineered from the constituents
of coal or oil. Some are 'thermoplastic', which means that, like candlewax, they melt when
heated and can then be reshaped. Others are 'thermosetting': like eggs, they cannot revert to their
original viscous state, and their shape is thus fixed for ever., Bakelite had the distinction of being
the first totally synthetic thermosetting plastic.
The history of today's plastics begins with the discovery of a series of semi-synthetic
thermoplastic materials in the mid-nineteenth century. The impetus behind the development of
these early plastics was generated by a number of factors - immense technological progress in
the domain of chemistry, coupled with wider cultural changes, and the pragmatic need to find
acceptable substitutes for dwindling supplies of 'luxury' materials such as tortoiseshell and ivory.
Baekeland's interest in plastics began in 1885 when, as a young chemistry student in Belgium, he
embarked on research into phenolic resins, the group of sticky substances produced when phenol
(carbolic acid) combines with an aldehyde (a volatile fluid similar to alcohol). He soon
abandoned the subject, however, only returning to it some years later. By 1905 he was a wealthy
New Yorker, having recently made his fortune with the invention of a new photographic paper.
While Baekeland had been busily amassing dollars, some advances had been made in the
development of plastics. The years 1899 and 1900 had seen the patenting of the first semi-
synthetic thermosetting material that could be manufactured on an industrial scale. In purely
scientific terms, Baekeland's major contribution to the field is not so much the actual discovery
of the material to which he gave his name, but rather the method by which a reaction between
phenol and formaldehyde could be controlled, thus making possible its preparation on a
commercial basis. On 13 July 1907, Baekeland took out his famous patent describing this
preparation, the essential features of which are still in use today.
The original patent outlined a three-stage process, in which phenol and formaldehyde (from
wood or coal) were initially combined under vacuum inside a large egg-shaped kettle. The result
was a resin known as Novalak, which became soluble and malleable when heated. The resin was
allowed to cool in shallow trays until it hardened, and then broken up and ground into powder.
Other substances were then introduced: including fillers, such as woodflour, asbestos or cotton,