Monday, February 5, 2018

Bakelite Ushers in a New Era--The Age of Plastic

An early Bakelite logo made, of course, with Bakelite.

Nobody noticed it at the time, but the dawn of a new age occurred on February 5, 1909 when Belgian born chemist Leo Baekeland unveiled his new discovery at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.  What he unveiled was the world’s first synthetic plastic.
Baekeland patented his discovery and began producing products using it under the name Bakelite.
At the turn of the 20th Century Baekeland had been researching synthetic replacements for expensive shellac, which was manufactured from the secretions of a beetle.  It was beginning to be recognized that various natural products were chemical polymers and that similar compounds could be synthetically produced.  From the reaction of phenol and formaldehyde he was able to produce synthetic soluble shellac.  Although the product was only a limited commercial success, it led him to further experimentation.
Moldable rubber was another expensive product.  Baekeland decided to try and enter that market.  He first experimented with using phenol and formaldehyde compounds as a binder for asbestos.  After experimentation he found that combing the ingredients under carefully controlled heat and pressure, he could obtain a moldable hard substance that had remarkable and useful characteristics—it was heat resistant, durable, non-corrosive and electrically non-conductive making it ideal for many industrial applications.   Eventually a fine wood flour replaced asbestos as the binder for most applications.

Chemist and inventor Leo Baekeland in his lab.
Unlike many plastics developed later, Bakelite was rigid and inflexible after molding, somewhat brittle, heavy, and required an expensive production process.  In recent years cheaper hard substitutes, both plastics and advanced ceramics, have replaced Bakelite in many products.
But in it hay day from the 1920’s to the 1950’s it was found many industrial uses—non-conducting,  parts of radios and other electrical devices, including bases and sockets for light bulbs and vacuum tubes; supports for electrical components; automobile distributor caps;  and other insulators. It continues to be used in insulation of wires, construction of brake pads and related automotive components as well as industrial electrical related applications.

A 1947 Bakelite telephone.  A substantial instrument.
Most people, however, encountered Bakelite in consumer products, perhaps most famously in the old table top telephones that weighed a ton, felt satisfactorily substantial in the hand, and lasted forever.  It was also used in the mouthpieces of woodwind instruments like clarinets and saxophones, camera bodies, radio housings, and the safety handles of pots and pans.  Some bowling balls were also made with it instead of hard rubber.
An art deco Bakelite table top radio.
Because it could be died and polished to a high shine, Bakelite was also used decoratively in early hard body electric guitars, and items as diverse as jewelry boxes, desk sets, hairbrushes and combs, bookends, and even, for a while, dishes and bowls.  It is used in the production of specialized beads and other components of costume jewelry.  

A colorful collection of Bakelite bangles and bracelets.
One of the most ubiquitous uses was in the heavy black ashtrays you used to see on bar tops, restaurant tables, and in other public places.
New products have replaced most of those applications, except for pot and pan handles.  Aside from automobile parts, Bakelite is now most commonly seen in the production of game pieces and accessoriesbilliard balls, domino and mah jong tiles, chess and checker pieces, and even opaque dice.
Sometimes when my fragile cell phone breaks being stared at hard, I yearn for one of those old Bakelite telephones that could double as murder weapons.

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