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Biographical Memoirs of LEO HENDRIK BAEKELAND 1863 - 1944


MY BAKELITE LECTURE/TALK is now available !!! Includes exhibits, slide show, handouts and much much more.. please contact me for full details, see below .. many people have already enjoyed the fun world of Bakelite... these include the Havering Antiques and Collectors Club, The Yorkshire Clarice Cliff Group and Ann Zierold Art Deco Fairs just to name a few !!!  BEING SO VERSATILE BAKELITE COVERS A WIDE SPECTRUM WHICH MIGHT BE JUST THE THING TO FILL ONE OF THE MEETING DATES IN YOUR CLUB'S CALENDAR OF EVENTS !!!

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National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Biographical Memoirs, volume xxiv - eighth memoir of
by Charles F. Kettering.

Presented to the Academy at the Autumn Meeting, 1946
Published by the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, 1947
( this material may be protected by copyright law- Title 17 US Code )

This copy taken from the Bakelite Company Library, Bloomfield, N.J.
George Gaylord Simpson. Appearing by kind permission of The Union Carbide Company of America.


Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born in Belgium, in the Flemish city of Ghent,on November 14th 1863. He was a son of Charles and Rosalie (Merchie) Baekeland, a Belgian family of moderate circumstances. Entering school at the age of 5, he passed through the elementary schools and the Atheneum, a government school. When old enough he entered the Ghent Municipal Technical School where he attended evening classes in chemistry, physics, mechanics, and economics, and won a medal in each of the four subjects.

Young Baekeland was such a promising student that the City of Ghent awarded him a scholarship in the University of Ghent, and he entered that university in 1880 at the age of 17. He was the youngest member of his class, but the most brilliant. In 1882 he graduated from the university as a Bachelor of Science. In two years more, or in 1884 at the age of 21, he gained the degree of Doctor of Science, maxima cum laude. Furthermore, with the aid of the City Scolarship he had received, and by teaching and serving also as a lecture assistant, he supported himself while in university. Baekeland was inspired to do this, and so to relieve his parents of hos support, he said later, by having early heard the story of Benjamin Franklin and having learned from it that a boy in humble circumstances could make his way altogether by his own efforts.

In the university Baekeland studied the natural sciences and specialized in chemistry. A boyhood interest in photography was one of the things which interested him in chemistry and which attracted him to it as a major. In some of his early experiments on photography young Baekeland had needed silver nitrate. He had no money to buy it, but he did have a watch with a silver chain which his father had given him. So he took the chain off his prized watch and dissolved it in nitric acid. There was copper in that solution too, but young Baekeland worked out, as one of his earliest chemical operations, a plan for removing the copper from the silver solution.

It was at the University of Ghent that Kekule had taught and it was there in 1865 that he announced his classical theory of the structure of benzene. Some years before Baekeland's time, however,Kekule had left Ghent for Bonn, and his chief assistant, Theodore Swarts, had taken his place as senior professor of chemistry. And it was under Professor Swarts that Baekeland studied.

In 1887 Baekeland was appointed professor of chemistry and physics at the Government Higher Normal School of Science in Bruges. He did not stay long at Bruges, though, for his own University of Ghent soon offered him a post as assistant professor. He gladly accepted that offer, and soon afterwards, in 1889, he was promoted to associate professor. One of the reasons for Baekeland's desire to return to Ghent was that he had fallen in love there with Celine Swarts, the charming daughter of his professor of chemistry, Theodore Swarts, and his wife Nina (Plateau)Swarts. The two young people were married on August 8, 1889, and the marriage proved a particularly happy one. In later years at a gathering to do him honor, Baekeland said, "You have talked here tonight about my many discoveries. But you haven't mentioned my greatest discovery - a discovery I made when I was still a student. That great discovery was a woman who is here with us tonight - my wife." Aside from the contributions she made to the success of her husband, which were many, Mrs. Baekeland became famous in her own right, notably as a painter in oils.


In a competition among the alumni of the four Belgian universities who had graduated during the preceding three years Baekeland won in 1887 first prize in chemistry. This gave him the title laureate in chemistry, a gold medal, and a travelling fellowship. And so, in 1889 when he was 26 years old, Baekeland visited University College,London, Oxford University, and the University of Edinburgh. After that,accompanied by his young wife, Baekeland sailed to the United States, where he planned to spend some time in continuing his researches,particularly in the chemistry of photography. Baekeland's native city of Ghent was a centre for the manufacture of photographic dry plates, an industry started there in the 1880's by Van Monkhoven. Monkhoven had taken an interest in young Baekeland, and with his encouragement Baekeland began early to experiment with photography and with the chemistry of its processses, and to try to extend the knowledge in the field.

Upon his arrival in New York, Baekeland made the acquaintance of Richard A. Anthony of E. and H.T. Anthony and Company,manufacturers of photographic materials.And through Richard Anthony he was introduced to C.F. Chandler,professor of chemistry at Columbia University, who was a chemical consultant to the Anthony Company and who also, as an enthusiastic amateur photographer, was then editing the " Photographic Bulletin " published by that company. Professor Chandler, being impressed by the capabilities of Baekeland, persuaded him to remain in the United States and to apply his talents to the solution of chemical problems in industry. Accepting the advice of Prof. Chandler, Baekeland cabled his resignation from the faculty of the University of Ghent. The Minister of Education of Belgium, in accepting Baekeland's resignation, authorised him to retain as an honarary title that of Associate Professor at the University of Ghent.

In 1891 the E. and H.T. Anthony and Company offered Baekeland an excellent position as chemist in their factory, which offer he accepted. It was the Anthony Company, makers of photographic dry plates and bromide paper, which afterwards joined with the Scoville Company to form the Ansco Company. In 1893, however, two years after he had begun to work for the Anthony people, Baekeland resigned his position to become an independent consulting and research chemist. Chiefly he planned to devote his time to developing a number of chemical processes which he had devised;and, as he said later, he made the mistake of scattering his attention on too many subjects at the same time. But at that stage a serious illness came upon him. And that brought him to a decision which he expressed in these words:

" While I was hovering 'twixt life and death, with all my cash gone and the uncomfortable sentiment of rapidly increasing debts, I had abundant time for sober reflection. It then dawned upon me that instead of keeping too many irons in the fire, I should concentrate my attention upon one single thing which would give me the best chance for the quickest possible results. "


The one thing which Baekeland decided to do after his recovery was to found in Yonkers, with the financial and managerial assistance of Leonard Jackobi, the Nepera Chemical Company, and to begin the manufacture on a small scale photographic papers and chemicals. One of those papers was named Velox, and it was destined later on to become very widely used indeed and to yield a financial return which set Baekeland free and put him in position to make other outstanding discoveries. Baekeland had begun ten years before, while still a student at Ghent, the research which culminated in Velox paper, but he had not previously appreciated its commercial importance. What he found out was that, in preparing a silver chloride emulsion, the customary ripening process and the subsequent washing step had a disastrous effect upon the emulsion in respect to the tone and the general gradation of the image, especially in the shadows. By preparing silver chloride in a special colloidal condition and omitting altogether the customary washing step, Baekeland made a distinctly superior photographic paper, and one which printed much faster than older papers.

Prints were made by exposing for a short time to artificial light and then developed at a little distance from the same light, which was a distinct improvement over the slow and unreliable method of sun printing then in use. Because of the different processing Velox paper required, however, it did not meet with general favour at first, and for that reason, coupled with the depression of 1893, the new company passed through some very difficult times. Baekeland spoke once of that period as several years of hard work, with never a single day of rest, and ever wondering whether I would pull through or not. He said further, I had been too optimistic in believing that the photographers were ready to abandon the old slow processes of making photographic prints. I had to find out then how difficult it is to teach anything new to people after once they got used to older methods Even my best friends tried to dissuade me from continuing my stubborn efforts. I had also not forseen manufacturing difficulties, but I gradually managed to overcome them.

Largely through use by amateurs .. who, as Baekeland said, began to give themselves the trouble of reading and following our printed directions the sales of the new paper gradually grew, and by 1899 the business had become so successful that the Eastman Kodak Company bought out the interests of Baekeland and Jackobi on very liberal terms. It was while he was manufacturing photographic papers in the 1890s that Baekeland became a pioneer in air conditioning as an aid to chemical processing. He found that atmospheric conditions, paricularly the moist content of the air, were responsible for large variations in the photographic printing papers produced. Up to that time, only refrigeration had been used for hardening coatings on papers by a chilling process. But, as such chilling had the bad effect of making the coating brittle, Baekeland worked out and installed a system for removing moisture from the air by putting the air through a refrigeration unit and subsequently warming it to the proper temperature by passing it over dteam coils before it entered the coating room. This gave rapid drying of the emulsion without the development of brittleness. Being troubled, however, in the winter time with the development of static electricity on the paper, Baekeland installed also a system in which silver chains were trailed over the paper on the coating machines to carry off the charge through the frame. And, in a paper presented in 1903, he said, " In photographic paper factories hygrometers and electroscopes should be consulted as often as the thermometer."

After the sale of his photographic paper interest to Eastman, Baekeland purchased as a home for his family and a place where he could continue his experiments, the estate in North Yonkers known as "Snug Rock." Situated high above the Hudson, it looked across the Palisades on the west bank. Of his situation at that time Baekeland said the following: "Thus at thirty-five I found myself in comfortable financial circumstances,a fee man,ready to devote myself again to my favourite studies. Then truly began the very happiest period of my life. I improvised one of the buildings at my residence in Yonkers into a modest but conveniently equipped laboratory. Henceforth I was able to work at various problems of my own free choice. In this way I enjoyed for several years that great blessing, the luxury of not being interrupted in one's favourite work."

From time to time Baekeland employed a number of assistants in his work there, but the greatest of his helpers was his wife, who assumed the responsibility of keeping his records, and whom he consulted on many of his problems and transactions.

Now click below on Memoirs continued

Baekeland Memoirs Continued



Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, who died in 1944 at the age of 80, was one of the foremost research chemists of our time. He is best known for the invention of the first commercial synthetic resin ( phenolic ), to which he applied the trade mark " Bakelite " That invention and the subsequent developments of synthetic resins, commonly known as plastics, have had far reaching effects on our civilisation. Plastics are now being used in every field of industry.

The following memoir of Baekeland was written by the famous American electrical engineer, Charles F. Kettering, and was presented to the National Academy of Sciences in the autumn of 1946. Appendix A, on the properties,development, and uses of BAKELITE phenolic today, was prepared by Union Carbide Corporation, Plastic Products Division. Appendices B and C are part of the original N.A.S.memoir.