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.
COMES TO UNITED STATES
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
Baekeland Memoirs Continued
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