Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland (November 14, 1863 – February 23, 1944) was a Belgian-born American chemist.
Baekeland invented Velox photographic paper in 1893 and Bakelite in 1907. His invention of Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry.
When asked why he entered the field of synthetic resins, Baekeland answered “to make money.” His first objective was to find a replacement for shellac (made from the excretion of lac beetles). Chemists had begun to recognize that many of the natural resins and fibers were polymers. Baekeland began to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde. He first produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called “Novolak” that never became a market success as a brand, but still exists as Novolac. He then turned to developing a binder for asbestos, which at that time was molded with rubber. By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, he could produce his dreamed-of hard moldable plastic: Bakelite. The chemical name of Bakelite is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. Baekeland’s process patent for making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde was filed in July 1907, and granted on December 7, 1909.
In February 1909 Baekeland officially announced his achievement at a meeting of the New York section of the American Chemical Society.
Bakelite was the first plastic invented that held its shape after being heated. Radios, telephones and electrical insulators were made of Bakelite because of its excellent electrical insulation and heat-resistance. Soon its applications spread to most branches of industry.