Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland was born November 14, 1863 in Ghent, Belgium.
His father was a cobbler and his mother a house maid.
Leo graduated with honors from the Ghent Municipal Technical School and was awarded a scholarship by the City of Ghent to study chemistry at the University of Ghent, where he graduated in 1882 before going on to acquire his PhD maxima cum laude in 1884.
He was subsequently appointed associate professor of chemistry and went on to marry Céline Swarts, the daughter of the head of the chemistry department in 1889.
The couple honeymooned in New York City, where he met Richard Anthony, of the E. and H.T. Anthony photographic company. Leo had already invented a process to develop photographic plates using water instead of other chemicals, and was interested in moving to America.
Richard Anthony saw potential in the young chemist and offered Leo a job.
Leo worked for the Anthony company for two years, and in 1891 set up in business for himself as a consulting chemist. However, a spell of illness and disappearing funds made him rethink his actions and he decided to return to his old interest of producing a photographic paper that would allow enlargements to be printed by artificial light.
After two years of intensive effort he perfected the process to produce the paper in 1893, which he named Velox.
Velox photographic paper made black and white images suitable for contact printing.
At the time however, the US was suffering a recession and there were no investors or buyers for his proposed new product, so Leo became partners with Leonardi Jacobi and established the Nepera Chemical Company in Nepera Park, Yonkers, New York.
In 1897, Leo became a naturalized American citizen.
Then in 1899, Leo Baekeland, Leonardi Jacabi, and Albert Hahn, a further associate, sold Nepera to George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Co. for $750,000.
With the sale, Velox would become the first commercially successful photographic paper and Leo earned circa $215,000 net from the transaction.
With a portion of the money, Leo purchased “Snug Rock”, a house in Yonkers, New York, and set up his own well-equipped laboratory.
Invention of Bakelite
When asked later why he entered the field of synthetic resins, Leo answered “to make money.”
His first objective was to find a replacement for shellac (made from the excretion of lac beetles).
Leo also began to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde.
He first produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called “Novolak” that never became a market success as a brand, but still exists as Novolac.
Leo then turned to developing a binder for asbestos, which at that time was molded with rubber.
By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, he produced his dreamed-of hard moldable plastic he called Bakelite. The chemical name for his Bakelite is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride.
He then filed for a process patent for making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde in July of 1907.
Then on Feburary 5, 1909, Leo Baekeland officially announced his achievement at a meeting of the New York section of the American Chemical Society.
He was finally granted his US Patent 942699 on December 7, 1909, which marked the beginning of the modern age of plastics.
As a result, Leo founded the General Bakelite Company in 1910 to manufacture Bakelite from phenol, then known as carbolic acid, and formaldehyde. These could then be mixed, heated, and either molded or extruded.
Bakelite was the first plastic invented that held its shape after being heated.
Radios, telephones and electrical insulators were made of Bakelite because of its excellent electrical insulation and heat-resistance. Soon its applications spread to most branches of industry.
In 1917, Leo received a special appointment as professor of chemistry at Columbia University.
Then in 1922, his General Bakelite Company merged with the Condensite Company and the Redmanol Chemical Products Company to form the Bakelite Corporation.
Leo went on to patent more than 55 inventions, including processes for the separation of copper and cadmium, and for the impregnation of wood.
As he got older he became more eccentric, getting into fierce battles with his son and presumptive heir over salary and other issues.
Leo sold the General Bakelite Company to Union Carbide in 1939 and, at his son’s prompting, he retired.
In 1940, Leo was awarded the Franklin Medal.
He became a recluse, eating all of his meals from cans and becoming obsessed with developing an immense tropical garden on his winter estate in Coconut Grove, Florida.
Leo then died of a cerebral hemorrhage in a sanatorium in Beacon, New York on February 23, 1944.
He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
At the time of his death, the world production of Bakelite was ca. 175000 tons, and it was used in over 15,000 different products.
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