A Brief History
On February 5, 1909, New Yorker Leo Baekeland presented his invention of Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, to the American Chemical Society.
Digging deeper, we find the Belgian-born Baekeland trying to invent a replacement for shellac, a product made by processing lac insects.
Shellac was used for many diverse purposes, such as dye for clothing, make-up and a variety of coatings such as varnish and lacquer paint. Of the several different lac insect species, thousands and thousands were required to harvest enough of the lac resin to produce even a small amount of shellac, making production time consuming and expensive. A cheaper and easier alternative would certainly be profitable.
Meanwhile, while also working on a binder for asbestos, a heat-resistant material used in fireproofing materials and brake linings, Baekeland combined phenol and formaldehyde to produce what he called Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic.
Being moldable and heat resistant, Bakelite found immediate use in electrical fixtures and telephones as well as toys, auto parts and many household objects. Later inventions of other plastic products gave us the incredible array of plastic products we know of today, from toothbrushes and clothing fibers to food preservation and sex toys! Automobiles now contain an enormous percentage of plastic, and some have their entire exterior body made of plastic! (Corvette, Saturn and Fiero just to name some General Motors vehicles with plastic bodies.) It would be hard to imagine modern medicine without plastic tubes and other devices.
Not only are old Bakelite products now collectible, modern products made of Bakelite are popular for their “retro” appearance. To demonstrate just how valuable plastic is to modern society, our money today (credit and debit cards) are often known simply as “plastic!”
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For more information on the history of plastic, see…
Freinkel, Susan. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
The featured image in this article, an image from a catalog of products manufactured in Bakelite, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. This image belongs to the Niessen Collection and was provided to GureGipuzkoa by Source: Niessen collection (Aranzadi Science Society). The image has been delivered under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license and can be found here. Its description is available here (click on the image for details).