Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland

Leo Hendrik Baekeland was a Belgian chemist who invented Velox photographic paper (1893) and Bakelite (1907), an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic.

November 14, 1863 in Sint-Martens-Latem near Ghent, Belgium, Baekeland was the son of a cobbler and a maid. He graduated with honors from the Ghent Municipal Technical School and was awarded a scholarship by the City of Ghent to study chemistry at the University of Ghent, where he acquired a PhD summa cum laude at the age of 21. He was subsequently appointed associate professor of chemistry in 1889, and married Céline Swarts, the daughter of the head of his department. In 1889 Baekeland honeymooned in New York, where he met Richard Anthony, of the E. and H.T. Anthony photographic company. Baekeland had already invented a process to develop photographic plates using water instead of chemicals, and was interested in moving to America.  Anthony saw potential in the young chemist and offered him a job. Baekeland worked for the Anthony company for two years, and in 1891 set up in business for himself as a consulting chemist. However, a spell of illness and disappearing funds made him rethink his actions and he decided to return to his old interest of producing a photographic paper that would allow good pictures to be taken in artificial light. After two years of intensive effort he perfected the process to produce the paper, which he named Velox. At the time the US was suffering a recession and there were no investors or buyers for his proposed new product, so Baekeland became partners with Leonardi Jacobi and established the Nepera Chemical Company in Nepera Park, Yonkers, New York. In 1899 Baekeland was invited to meet George Eastman, who offered him $1,000,000 for his Velox process. Baekeland accepted and with a portion of the money he purchased "Snug Rock", a house in Yonkers, New York, and set up his own well-equipped laboratory.

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. 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 official name of Bakelite is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. Baekeland officially announced his achievement at the February 1909 meeting of the New York section of the American Chemical Society.

The invention of Bakelite marked the beginning of the Age of Plastics. Bakelite took the industry by storm after 1907. 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 properties of insulation and heat-resistance. Soon it penetrated nearly all industries.
Blakeland died February 23, 1944 and is buried at Sleepy Hollow.


The photo above is a view of "Snug Rock"  (circa 1900) the Baekeland's home in the early 1900's.


The map above is from 1907. The Baekeland's home "Snug Rock" and outbuildings are to the north. Note also his neighbor to the south, David Oppenheimer. David Oppenheimers home "The Crags" is pictured below. It has a similar architectural style.


(Photo above)  Front view of the Residence of David Oppenheimer "The Crags"


Photo above----Side view of the Residence of David Oppenheimer "The Crags"

Refer back to the map above and there is a residence to the south of Baekeland's named "Glenheim". The photo below is of the drive heading in to Glenheim. Note the map shows a garden to the left of the entrance. The garden can be seen in the extreme left of the photograph. At the time the photograph was taken (circa 1900) the property was owned by Frank Seaman a prominent advertising agency executive. It was sold to Thomas H. Wheeler who was in the meat business circa 1905.


Click the link below to the Yonkers Hudson River Museum's web page talking about the upcoming Baekeland exhibition.