Science history: the man whose balls didn’t explode
Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the salvation of America’s billiard players. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
In 1993, the American Chemical Society (ACS) launched its Directory of National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Its inaugural inductee was Leo Baekeland, inventor of the material known as Bakelite.
Baekeland was born on 14 November 1863, in Sint-Martens-Latem, Belgium. He earned bachelor and doctorate degrees in science from Ghent University.
He moved to the United States in 1889, where he made his first significant invention, a photographic printing paper he called Velox, which could be developed under artificial light. In 1899 he sold the rights to it to George Eastman’s Kodak company for $1 million.
Baekeland’s deal with Eastman included a non-compete clause, meaning he could no longer create photographic materials, so he set his sights on new areas of research.
In 1869, pushed by soaring costs of ivory, US billiard table makers Phelan & Collender had offered $10,000 to anyone who could invent a new material for the manufacture of pool balls.
John Wesley Hyatt, an inventor working in New York, combined camphor with alcohol and cellulose nitrate and moulded it into a spherical shape under extreme pressure. His finished product, which he called celluloid, didn't win the prize, but the ACS says his creation is regarded as one of the first synthetic plastics.
Celluloid was eventually used in everything from hair combs to movie film. He continued to refine his billiard balls, but they remained a poor substitute for ones made of ivory, lacking durability. What's worse, cellulose nitrate wasn't a particularly stable substance, and on rare occasions, Hyatt admitted, his balls would explode with struck with force.
Meanwhile, many researchers, including Baekeland in his New York laboratory, were investigating the potential of phenol-formaldehyde resins for the production of commercially viable plastic moulding compounds.
The ACS records that on 18 June 1907 Baekeland began a new laboratory notebook, which is now held in the archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. In it, he documented the results of tests in which he applied a phenol and formaldehyde mixture to various pieces of wood.
The notebook gives a detailed account of his experimentation, which culminated in his discovery of a material he called Bakelite, generally regarded as the first commercially popular synthetic plastic. Prime among its uses was the manufacture of durable and non-exploding billiard balls – which, by the mid-1920s, were rolling on green felt across the US.
Along with explaining the processes involved, in his notebook he described crafting a “machine”, which he called a “Bakelizer”, necessary for producing his plastic.
Baekeland eventually took out more than 400 patents related to the manufacture and applications of Bakelite, particularly in the emerging electrical and automobile industries.
He died on 23 February 1944, in rural New York.