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Leo Baekeland

Leo BaekelandAKA Leo Hendrik Baekeland

Born: 14-Nov-1863
Birthplace: Ghent, Belgium
Died: 23-Feb-1944
Location of death: Beacon, NY
Cause of death: Cerebral Hemorrhage
Remains: Buried, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Scientist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Father of plastics

Leo Baekeland was born and raised in Belgium, and studied chemistry at the University of Ghent. He fell in love with his professor's daughter, eloped with her against his mentor's wishes, and came to America in 1889. For two years he worked for a manufacturer of photographic dry plates and bromide paper, quitting in 1891 when he invented Velox photographic paper, a paper coated with gelatin silver chloride which allowed prints to be developed under artificial light. He established the Nepera Chemical Company to manufacture the papers, but sold the patent and company to Kodak eight years later, reportedly for one-million dollars — an enormous sum at the time.

Freed from the pressures of work, Baekeland constructed a modern private laboratory, intending to develop a synthetic substitute for shellac. As his experiments progressed, however, he learned about more and more resilient materials and eventually turned his attention toward creating a solvent-resistant, heat- and water-resistant, non-conductive, and reasonably affordable new material. In 1907 he invented Bakelite, the first industrial thermoset plastic (meaning that its shape remains constant after being mixed and molded). Made from carbolic acid and formaldehyde, Bakelite was the first completely synthetic plastic, and proved a key manufacturing breakthrough as it became ubiquitous in construction, electronic switches, engine parts, jewelry, pipe stems, radio cases, furniture, billiard balls, and all manner of industrial products.

In 1912 Baekeland developed a phenol-formaldehyde resin that served for many years as a basic compound in the adhesives industry. In 1939 he sold his business to Union Carbide and retired, and five years later he passed away. His name was briefly in the headlines some decades later, when his grandson's wife, socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, was murdered by her son in 1972.

Father: Karel Baekeland (shoe repairman)
Mother: Rosalia Merchie Baekeland (domestic servant)
Wife: Celine Swarts Baekeland (m. 8-Aug-1889, one son, one daughter)
Son: George Baekeland
Daughter: Jennifer Baekeland ("Jenny", b. 1890, d. 1895 influenza)
Daughter: Nina Roll Baekeland Wyman

    High School: Ghent Municipal Technical School, Ghent, Belgium (1879)
    University: BS, University of Ghent (1882)
    University: PhD Natural Science, University of Ghent (1884)
    Teacher: Government Normal School of Science, Bruges, Belgium (1884-87)
    Teacher: Natural Science, University of Ghent (1884-89)

    E. and A.T. Anthony and Co. Chemist (1889-91)
    Kodak Nepera Chemical Co.:Founder (1891)
    Kodak Nepera Chemical Co.: President (1891-99)
    Union Carbide Bakelite Corp.: Founder (1910)
    Union Carbide Bakelite Corp.: President (1910-39)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Chemical Society President (1924)
    American Institute of Chemists
    American Institute of Chemical Engineers President (1912)
    American Philosophical Society
    Electrochemical Society President (1909)
    Franklin Institute
    National Academy of Sciences
    Royal Society of Arts Foreign Member
    Royal Society of Edinburgh Foreign Member
    Société Chimique de France
    Phi Lambda Upsilon
    Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society
    Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society
    Nichols Medal 1909
    John Scott Medal 1910
    Willard Gibbs Medal 1913
    Perkin Medal 1916
    Benjamin Franklin Medal 1940 (by the Franklin Institute)
    French Legion of Honor
    Order of Leopold, Belgium
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1978
    Naturalized US Citizen 1889
    Belgian Ancestry

Appears on the cover of:
Time, 22-Sep-1924


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