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Leo Baekeland: The Man Who Invented Plastic

Posted on 21st October 2016

One of the first plastics to be developed was called polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride (try saying that three times fast). Its inventor, the chemist Leo Baekeland, realised that it needed a catchier name if he was to make a success of selling his new invention. He named it Bakelite and it went on to change the world. This is the story of how.


The Problem with Electricity


A selection of edison lightbulbsIn the early twentieth century, rich households in the United States were getting fitted with the latest lighting technology: electricity. However, the new electric wires running between rooms were prone to sparking, which could cause fires or electrocution. Sockets and housings for the electrical wires needed to be made of a material that was not conductive of electricity, but was also fire proof. Metal, wood and rubber were all ruled out. 

An Expensive Solution


Shellac - a resin made from what is essentially beetle faeces - was found to be the perfect substance for insulating wires. Shellac is expensive. It takes 15,000 Lac Beetles six months to produce one pound of shellac resin. This made shellac a somewhat luxury choice. Baekeland wondered if there was a synthetic process that could produce a polymer with the required properties. 


Early Experiments


Baekeland set about experimenting with various chemicals. He methodically combined them in different ratios and heated them to different temperatures at different pressures. The early experiment results were disastrous: fires, explosions, gunky messes, spongy messes. Undeterred, he continued mixing chemicals and altering the variables of ratio, temperature, pressure and catalyst for five years. He kept meticulous notes in his chemistry journals.


The Eureka Moment


Eventually, Baekeland hit upon the combination of formaldehyde and phenol. When heated together with a catalyst, these formed an alcohol soluble substance that, when subjected to a second heating under the right pressure conditions, set as a hard, insoluble, plastic. Bakelite was born.


A Wonder Material


A twentieth century telephone

Manufacturers quickly realised that Bakelite was good for more than just insulation. Pretty soon after its invention, Bakelite was being used in all sorts of products. Early telephone and radio sets were made from the easily moldable polymer. Personal items such as toothbrushes and combs were revolutionised by the introduction of Bakelite. New toys and games manufactured from the substance appeared on the market. Bakelite was the wonder material of the early twentieth century. 


At Coda Plastics Ltd, we work with more modern plastics than Bakelite, but the principle properties are the same. Plastic could be the perfect material for manufacturing your product. If you would like to speak to our development team about your new product or a packaging solution for your product, call us on 01692 201020 or drop us an email to sales@coda-plastics.co.uk


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