Bakelite or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, is an early plastic. It is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It was developed by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York, in 1907.
One of the first plastics made from synthetic components, Bakelite was used for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children’s toys, and firearms. The “retro” appeal of old Bakelite products has made them collectible.
Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark on November 9, 1993, by the American Chemical Society in recognition of its significance as the world’s first synthetic plastic.
Baekeland was already wealthy, due to his invention of Velox photographic paper, when he began to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde in his home laboratory. Chemists had begun to recognize that many natural resins and fibres were polymers. Baekeland’s initial intent was to find a replacement for shellac, a material that was in limited supply because it was made naturally from the excretion of lac insects (specifically Kerria lacca). Baekeland produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called “Novolak”, but it was not a market success.
Baekeland then began experimenting to strengthen wood by impregnating it with a synthetic resin, rather than coating it. By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, Baekeland produced a hard moldable material which he named “Bakelite”. It was the first synthetic thermosetting plastic ever produced, and Baekeland speculated on “the thousand and one … articles” that it could be used to make.:58–۵۹ Baekeland considered the possibilities of using a wide variety of filling materials, including cotton, powdered bronze, and slate dust, but was most successful with wood and asbestos fibers.
Baekeland filed a substantial number of patents in the area. His “Method of making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde” was filed on July 13, 1907, and granted on December 7, 1909. Baekeland also filed for patent protection in other countries, including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and Spain. He announced his invention at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on February 5, 1909.