A new display in Dibner Library features Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic and its inventor, Leo Hendrik Baekeland. A Belgian chemist, Baekeland immigrated to the United States in 1889 to do chemical research on photographic paper and eventually patented his new paper under the name ‘Velox’. In 1907, he filed a patent for oxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, later called Bakelite, a synthetic thermosetting plastic that could be molded and then cured by applying heat and pressure using a Bakelizer machine.
Bakelite was used for a wide range of products from clocks and radios to billiard balls and gears – all of which can be seen in the display. Bakelite jewelry is still popular among collectors, impressive for its resistance to chemicals and wear. The jewelry on display is actually contemporary work made using vintage phenolic rods by the local artist Jorge Caicedo – which just goes to show how remarkable Bakelite is in terms of durability. During its heyday, Bakelite was hailed as the “material of a thousand uses” and advertisements focused on its variety of applications in all sectors of production. Since Bakelite was an excellent electrical insulator, it became widely used in industrial settings and cars, so much so that their modern counterparts are still being used to this day! A variety of these automotive parts and industrial tools are also in the display.
The display will be up in the atrium of Dibner Library until July 1st, but you can always find more information about Baekeland and Bakelite at allthingsbakelite.com! Keep an eye out for a screening of the documentary “All Things Bakelite” on PBS, coming soon.
The Bakelite display was curated by dual-degree student Zoe Blecher-Cohen (Poly Archives Graduate Assistant) and Lindsay Anderberg (Poly Archivist) with help from donor Hugh Karraker (All Things Bakelite producer).