Biographical / Historical
Leo Hendrik Baekeland was an industrial chemist famous for his invention of Bakelite, the first moldable synthetic polymer, and for his invention of Velox photographic paper. Baekeland's career as an inventor and innovator was punctuated by an urge to improve existing technologies and a willingness to experiment both meticulously and daringly. Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1863, Baekeland was a distinguished chemistry student and became a young professor at the University of Ghent. He had a long standing interest in photography and sought to further photographic technology with his expertise in chemistry. In 1887 he obtained his first patent for a dry plate which contained its own developer and could be developed in a tray of water. With the support of a business partner/faculty associate, Jules Guequier, he formed a company named Baekeland et Cie to produce the plate, but the venture failed due to lack of capital.
On August 8, 1889, he married Celine Swarts, daughter of his academic mentor Theodore Swarts, Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Ghent. After his wedding he travelled to different countries using a traveling scholarship he had been awarded two years previously. His travels ended in the United States where he was offered a job researching chemical problems associated with manufacturing bromide papers and films with A. and H.T. Anthony and Company, a photographic supply producer. Leo and Celine Baekeland had three children: George, Nina and Jenny (1890-1895).
He left Anthony and Company in 1891 to be a consulting chemist. During that time he invented a photographic print paper using silver chloride which could be developed in artificial light instead of sunlight and thus offered more flexibility and consistency to photographers. In 1893, with financial support from Leonard Jacobi, a scrap metal dealer from San Francisco, he formed the Nepera Chemical Company in Yonkers, New York, to manufacture "gaslight" paper under the trade name Velox. The paper became quite popular and the company expanded its operations after its first three years. Finally, George Eastman bought the company for a reported $750,000 which afforded Baekeland the time to conduct his own research in a laboratory he set up on his estate, "Snug Rock," in Yonkers.
Baekeland worked on problems of electrolysis of salt and the production of synthetic resins. He was hired as a consultant to work with Clinton P. Townsend to perfect Townsend's patented electrolytic cell. Baekeland's work there contributed to the success of the Hooke Electrochemical Company which began in operations in Niagara Falls in 1905.
Simultaneously, in 1902 Baekeland began researching reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, and by 1907 was able to control the reactions and produce a moldable plastic (oxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride) which he named Bakelite. Although the process was not perfected for another couple of years, Baekeland applied for a patent for Bakelite right away. He announced his discovery to the scientific community in 1909, and in 1910 formed the General Bakelite Company. Bakelite was a thermosetting resin that, unlike Celluloid became permanently solid when heated. It was virtually impervious to heat, acids, or caustic substances. It could be molded into a wide variety of shapes and was an excellent electric insulator that came to replace hard rubber and amber for electrical and industrial applications. It was also suitable for a wide variety of consumer products such as billiard balls, jewelry, pot handles, telephones, toasters, electric plugs, and airplane instrument knobs. Two companies challenged Bakelite with significant competition, Condensite Corporation of America and Redmanol Chemical Products Company. Bakelite finally merged with these two companies in 1922 to become the Bakelite Corporation. Union Carbide finally bought the corporation in 1939.
Baekeland sustained his interest in photography by taking numerous photographs throughout his lifetime. He also devoted much of his spare time to professional societies and received various honorary degrees and awards such as the Perkin Medal. He had several hobbies such as boating, wine and beer making, and, exotic plants. He also traveled extensively throughout the world, which is documented in his diaries and photographs.
Baekeland spent his final years mostly in his Coconut Grove, Florida home where he became increasingly eccentric until his mind failed him and he was institutionalized. He died in 1943 at the age of eighty.
Scope and Content: Baekeland documented his life prolifically through diaries, laboratory notebooks, photographs, and correspondence. These constitute the bulk of the collection. The Bakelite company history is also incompletely documented in this collection through Baekeland's correspondence, the commercial laboratory notebooks, and some company ledgers.