If we are to establish a specific day to mark the beginning of "The Age of Plastic,"* it should be December 7. On this day 101 years ago, US Patent 942,699 entitled "Method of Making Insoluble Product of Phenol and Formaldehyde" was issued to Leo Hendrik Baekeland of Yonkers, NY.
What Leo H. Baekeland (1863 - 1944) did at his Yonkers laboratory in 1907 was mix the disinfectant carbolic acid (phenol) with the preservative formaldehyde to produce a synthetic substance he decided to call "Bakelite," somewhat immodestly, after himself. The claim in his patent sounds esoteric though, "the production of hard, insoluble and infusible condensation products of phenols and formaldehyde."
The Belgian-born Baekeland was a true chemical genius. By the 1890s, he already earned fame by inventing an improved photographic paper wherein images can be developed by means of artificial light. He called his invention that freed photographers from relying solely on sunlight Velox. At age 35, Baekeland sold his Velox photographic paper to Kodak founder, George Eastman, for $1,000,000 thereby setting a trend that has been emulated by young innovators of today.
What prompted Baekeland to pursue Bakelite was the search for a synthetic substitute to shellac, a secretion that Laccifer lacca beetles deposited on certain Southeast Asian trees. At the advent of electrification during the early years of the 20th century, the use of shellac as insulator for wires and coils became widespread driving its market price to rise exponentially.
While Bakelite was not the first plastic (John Wesley Hyatt already had a patent on his Celluloid as early as 1869,) Baekeland's plastic was the first 100% synthetic thus very safe and stable. Celluloid on the other hand, since it was nothing more than a solid nitrocellulose, burns (and, in the case of colliding celluloid billiard balls, explodes!)
Needless to say, it was a breeze for Bakelite to gain universal use. Soon, jewelry, ornaments, combs, pens, toys, electrical appliances were all made from this plastic. When restrictions on metal use was imposed during World War II, Bakelite was even proposed as copper substitute in minting US pennies!
However, the ubiquitous applications of plastic that started with Bakelite gave new meaning to the word. Dustin Hoffman's character in the 1960's movie, "The Graduate," described the malaise of the times with the famous line: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics." Credit and ATM cards, which, as we all know, are all made of plastic have added a new dimension of its meaning for our time.
* Note: It can be argued that a patent's filing date, which, in L. H. Baekeland's case being July 13, 1907 seems more accurate in tracing the beginning of "The Age of Plastic." If I do that, however, I foresee some problems it will create in my future patent blogs, say, in describing an invention that ushered in "The Computer Age," etc., etc.
The US Patent Office's practice of affixing a filing date on patents only started in 1873. Prior to that, patents did not contain this information except in rare cases when inventors wrote in dates in their patents, usually found at the last sentence of the document. Given the importance of both issuance and filing dates, I will make sure to include these information in my blog when available.
Useful links re L. H. Baekeland and Bakelite: The Bakelite Museum http://www.bakelitemuseum.de/