Bakelite made the 20th century, however the plastic’s legacy is sobering

Bakelite made the 20th century, however the plastic’s legacy is sobering

All Things Bakelite: Age plastic

John Maher

On Apple TV+, Google TV, iTunes, YouTube and Vudu


IT IS a busy evening in New York and a guy is asking persons on the street randomly if they are familiar with Bakelite. Do not require knows what it really is, but most think it is linked to food. We meet them in a documentary, where in fact the truth is revealed: without Bakelite, the first wholly synthetic plastic, the world could have been very different.

John Maher’s EVERYTHING Bakelite offers a brief, absorbing insight in to the history of the brand new plastic – and in to the life of Leo Baekeland, the chemist who invented it in 1907.

Bakelite was a breakthrough. Its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties quickly managed to get a popular material for most industries, and the range of colours it might undertake gave an artistic edge to designers and manufacturers of appliances such as for example radios and rotary dial telephones.

Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863, Baekeland became an academic chemist. In 1889, he emigrated to the united states because of travel fellowships from four Belgian universities. Four years later, his poor financial situation and a extreme case of appendicitis forced him to re-evaluate his career. He made a decision to revisit photography, in which he previously success in 1887, inventing and patenting an activity of developing photographic plates with water rather than chemicals.

This interesting digression gives the documentary the excuse to highlight another of Baekeland’s inventions, Velox photographic paper. Created in 1893, Velox’s capability to develop photographic prints under artificial light managed to get a commercial success. In 1899, George Eastman, the owner of Kodak, bought it from Baekeland, giving him the financial stability and space to build up other ideas.

The inclusion of Velox in the film’s narrative not only explains Baekeland’s contribution to modern photography, but also reminds us that neither science nor invention is an easy process.

As EVERYTHING Bakelite progresses to the creation and success of Bakelite itself, it shifts focus from the man to the material. Using stock footage and studio-style close-ups of components and appliances, we see the versatility of Bakelite and how it had been applied, from automation to consumer goods.

Interviewees from various areas – chemistry, Bakelite jewellery designers and Baekeland’s descendants – all provide insight into its significance. One of the most notable interviewees is Hugh Karraker, Baekeland’s great-grandson, who owns The L.H. Baekeland Project, which celebrates Baekeland and  Bakelite . But he appears to be there mainly to explain his involvement in the documentary as its producer.

In the end, the give attention to Bakelite leaves Baekeland’s personal history unfinished. The documentary means that, regardless of the material’s success, things didn’t go well for him because of patent problems and the stress of business. We hear snippets about his eccentric behaviour and increasing isolation, and that he became a recluse after he retired from the Bakelite Corporation.

Overall, the documentary is a celebration of plastic. Amid its retro aesthetic, it emphasises the material’s importance and impact. Despite the recyclability of several new polymers offering expect modern plastics, audiences are left with the sombre legacy of poor Baekeland and his invention’s environmental effect.

Article amended on
6 July 2021

We’ve corrected Baekeland’s journey to the united states and our description of the L.H. Baekeland Project.

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