Leading the way in The Age of Plastics, Bakelite’s creation in 1907 was also the creation of the very first truly artificial manufacturing material. Brent Balinski spoke to two chemistry academics, an engineer, a manufacturer still specialising in the material, and a vintage collectibles dealer about what was once called The Material of 1,000 Uses.
A completely new type of material
Bakelite is of interest for many reasons, but first and foremost, it's widely recognised as the first truly artificial material that could be used to make something.
As English science author Brian Clegg explains it, before Bakelite – the first widely used phenolic plastic – there were only five classes of materials available to manufacturers. These were stone, living matter, metal, glass and ceramics. Bakelite brought in a world of new possibilities.
Bakelite wasn’t the first plastic, as materials including celluloids and casein (from plants and milk respectively) were already available. It turned out that nature could be improved on, though, as these plastics had volatility and degradation issues.
The first plastic, Parkesine, was a type of celluloid, and came about in the 1850s.
“It’s often stated that [Bakelite] is the first fully synthetic polymer,” the University of NSW’s Professor Robert Burford told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“In other words, before Bakelite was developed, things like celluloid and natural rubber and gutta-percha – these were all derivatives of naturally occurring polymers of one sort or another.
“I think that it’s generally viewed that it’s really the first all-synthetic polymer made from small molecule raw materials.”
Bakelite was invented by and takes its name from Leo H Baekeland, a Belgian-born chemist who was living in Yonkers, New York, at the time.
Baekeland moved to the US in 1889, and became wealthy from the invention of Velox – a type of photographic paper, the patent for which he sold to Kodak Eastman. At about the turn of the century he set up in Yonkers’ (in New York) Harmony Park neighbourhood.
He converted a barn into his laboratory and originally set to work with his assistant Nathaniel Thurlow on a substitute for shellac.
Shellac, produced by the female lac bug and used for purposes including insulation and varnishing, was difficult and expensive to process.
“He used the chemistry that was fairly well known of the reaction between phenol and formaldehyde,” explained Burford.
“And he developed that to make these mouldable resins.”
Phenol – a coal tar by-product used as a disinfectant – and formaldehyde – made from wood alcohol and used as a preservative – had been combined before, though this had only produced an unusable, crusty material.
Phenolic formaldehyde resins had been a subject of investigation for chemists since Germany’s Otto Baeyer’s experiments in the 1870s. However, nobody had successfully commercialised them as a mouldable plastic. There had been companies marketing these as lacquers, with limited commercial success.
What Baekeland created was achieved through a combination of phenol, formaldehyde, a catalyst, and a filler (often wood flour, but other substances including asbestos, cloth and paper, were used to decrease the plastic’s brittleness.)
“The mixture is put under pressure, and after curing at an elevated temperature, a hard plastic material forms,” Professor Qipeng Guo, personal chair (chair professorship) in polymer science and technology, Deakin University, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“Bakelite powder is poured into the cavity in the die, the heat causes the powder to melt and expand to fill the
cavity while the press closes with 3000psi of pressure,” he explained.
“The process is similar to injection moulding but is more labour intensive.”
Baekeland made his famous “Heat and Pressure” patent application in 1907, though the Plastics Historical Society and others have pointed out that a patent the following year (covering three different versions of Bakelite) was the recipe for a mouldable product.
He made his announcement in 1909 at an American Chemical Society lecture, formed the General Bakelite Company (later Bakelite Corporation) in 1910, and ushered in what has been called The Age of Plastics.
The sealed autoclave (which he called the Bakelizer) first used to process Baekeland’s invention was named a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1993, and now has a home at the Smithsonian.
The Material Of 1,000 Uses
Baekeland’s invention, which was also produced in forms such as laminated sheets and with various different fillers, was a thermoset plastic that found usefulness in everything from telephones to radios to pipe stems to musical instruments.
Marketed as the “Material of 1,000 uses”, its purposes were varied and its popularity increased rapidly. According to a few articles (though the original source is elusive), the worldwide output of phenolic plastics when Baekeland died in 1944 was 175,000 tonnes.
Its abilities – insulating heat and electricity – were enormously desirable and unique at the time, and it quickly found favour for these purposes.
“Electrical insulation and lighting was always a standard in bakelite originally,” said Paas, whose company specialises in restoration.
Given Bakelite’s properties, there were many other purposes where it was better than anything else available at the time.
“What makes it chemically unique is its highly crosslinked network structure,” explained Guo.
“As a result, Bakelite has extraordinarily high resistance—not only to electricity, but to heat and chemical action. It is thus particularly suitable for use in the electrical and automobile industries.”
The substance’s popularity developed in a similar period to the two industries mentioned above. A promotional video from the Bakelite Corporation and made in 1937, The Fourth Kingdom, mentions an automobile from the era with 200 of its components made from Bakelite.
It was a material synonymous with things like telephones and radios of the time.
A brilliant amber-like colour on its own, it was limited early on – due to the fillers used – by few appealing colour options. Later innovations, notably by Catalin, added new visual possibilities.
Many believe the material’s heyday was the 1930s and 40s. Jewellery and other art deco memorabilia from the era is highly sought after by some collectors willing to pay top dollar.
Bakelite is found in nowhere near as many places as it used to be, though it still has considerable appeal for vintage collectors.
Paas’s business makes products including light shades, art deco switch plates and lamp holders.
He admits that he caters to a narrow market.
“There are far more practical products to use these days instead of Bakelite, so my business survives by providing the niche in the market of home restoration,” he said.
“Electrical insulation and lighting was always a standard in bakelite originally. There's also still a strong market in Bakelite jewelry.”
At the time of writing, a search of “Bakelite” brought up 1,899 matches in eBay’s Australian site, with jewellery items in good condition asking as much as $3,000-plus.
Bakelite jewellery was popular during the Depression due to its inexpensiveness, though items that have survived and retained a good condition are not cheap.
Norma Hawley, owner of the collectibles store Vintage Online, explained the price collectors are willing to pay.
“The beautiful vintage bakelite jewellery pieces from the 1930s and 1940s that I love and authentic pieces are difficult to track and expensive when found,” she told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“It is still a very practical material for its look, weight and polish.”
“Although still used to produce items today mainly in China, India and Hong Kong, it is usually for the production of things like dominoes and chess pieces etc.”
“[Also,] generally speaking if something has been around for 70 years there will be at least some signs of wear,” pointed out Hawley.
A Bakelite bender can be expensive, and one extreme example from 2000 saw a payroll boss at high-profile law firm Baker & Mackenzie’s New York office embezzle $US 7 million, some of which went to building his collection.
According to Forbes article from the same year, Dennis Masellis – whose crimes saw him sentenced to three-to-nine years in jail – gathered the world’s largest collection, at 4,000 pieces and worth $1 million.
“It was all done to feed his uncontrollable Bakelite habit,” noted the article.
Still kicking around
Though its popularity peaked long ago, Bakelite still sees some demand, and not just from hobbyists.
“It’s still very popular in electrical switchboard applications, which is not our field,” Brett Hayes, business and product development manager from Stug Australia, an engineering plastics and metals custom manufacturing specialist.
“Bakelite being a thermoset material as opposed to a thermoplastic material, thermosets are becoming less used because there’s far better materials now for mechanical applications.”
Guo pointed out that it’s still used for, “Wire insulation, brake pads and related automotive components, and industrial electrical-related applications.”
However, other plastics have replaced it in these applications including other thermosets, such as epoxy resins and engineering thermoplastics, such as polyimides.
The thermoset nature of the material means that it can’t be recycled: not the best match for times that are more environmentally-conscious than the first half of the 20th century.
“Nowadays if you’re wanting a rigid material with insulating properties you probably go for something like acetyl resin or glass-filled nylon or something like that,” suggested Burford.
“Which is able to be extruded, moulded, in a different way, still have the stability, and can be recycled.”
Paas said he has only witnessed one other Australian company that made Bakelite products: Alvey Reels.
Hayes said the name Bakelite is “still kicking around,” with a lot of the older engineers he deals with, and it is referred to in older manuals.
“People are still requiring Bakelite from a compliance point of view or from an engineering certificate point of view,” he said, noting that
“Yes, they’re still manufacturing it. But if it’s not needed, we’ll generally just go through and identify the failure modes and make a recommendation for a more user-friendly, more cost-effective grade of thermoplastic generally.”
Story images (in order):
Smithsonian National Museum of American History