The production of synthetic plastics began in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite by Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863 – 1944). At the time, there was a thirst for a new material that w0uld fulfill the needs of the latest innovations – radios, electrical insulators and mounts, telephones, car parts, cameras, toasters, vacuum cleaners- any product that required a material that could resist heat, electricity, and be cheaply manufactured through mass production.
The existing “natural” plastics couldn’t do the job. Shellac (which comes from the Asian lac beetle) and Japanese Lacquer (a product of the lacquer tree) were in limited supply, and celluloid, which is made from cellulose and camphor (both found in a variety of plants), was widely available but highly flammable and therefore dangerous to manufacture and use. Natural rubber, which is made from the sap of different plants was too soft and melted when exposed to heat.
Enter, Bakelite. Created by the chemical reaction between phenol and formaldehyde, manufacturers loved it from the beginning. It was thermosetting (stayed in its form even when exposed to heat), hard, and durable. It possessed excellent electric insulation properties and could be manufactured cheaply in practically unlimited quantities.
Bakelite quickly became the emblem of modernity.
When friends asked Baekeland why he entered the field of synthetic resins, he answered “to make money”. Baekeland knew you could make money with plastic 60 years before Mr. McGuire bestowed this gem of knowledge on Benjamin in the classic scene from “The Graduate” .
The scientific magazine “The Brass World And Planters Guide” from 1911 wrote excitedly about Baekeland’s new invention, dubbing him one of the “foremost inventors of the age” and declaring that “Bakelite is an entirely new product and there are very few manufacturers who will not find some place where it can be employed to an excellent advantage.”
The magazine is clearly impressed with Bakelite’s science: “It is strange that two pungent and ill smelling substances should unite to form a material that is transparent and amber-like in color, and entirely devoid of odor and taste. Such is chemical reaction and while remarkable, indicates the possibilities of making substances synthetically”.
Bakelite was widely used until the early ’50s, when it quickly gave way to brightly colored, less brittle, and cheaper to produce plastics like PVC.
Today Bakelite is rarely used in consumer products. However, it is still sometimes used in small precision-shaped components, such as molded disc brake cylinders, saucepan handles, electrical plugs, switches, and parts for electrical irons.
You can still find a lot of products made out of Bakelite in antique stores.
If you’re unsure if it’s Bakelite that you’re holding in your hand, there are several ways to find out. Bakelite has a clunky sound and a more ‘worthy’ feel to it than other plastics. Bakelite also also has a more ‘natural’ color than modern plastics.
Rub your fingers over Bakelite or poke it with a hot needle. If you detect a chemical odor akin to the smell of burned human hair (which is formaldehyde), it’s Bakelite.