Leo Baekeland in the opening scene of The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (played by a young Dustin Hoffman) is awkwardly working an affluent Southern California crowd at a graduation party arranged for him by his parents when a family friend offers one of the century’s most famous pieces of cinematic advice: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics.” Millions of moviegoers winced and smiled. The scene neatly captured their own late-’60s ambivalence toward the ever more synthetic landscape of their times. They loved their cheap, easy-to-clean Formica countertops, but envied – and longed for – the authentic touch and timelessness of marble and wood. The chord struck by that line in The Graduate underscored how much had happened in the six decades since the summer of 1907, when Leo Hendrik Baekeland made the laboratory breakthrough that would change the stuff our world is made of.
A Belgian-born chemist-entrepreneur, Baekeland had a knack for spotting profitable opportunities. He scored his first success in the 1890s with his invention of Velox, an improved photographic paper that freed photographers from having to use sunlight for developing images. With Velox, they could rely on artificial light, which at the time usually meant gaslight but soon came to mean electric. It was a far more dependable and convenient way to work. In 1899 George Eastman, whose cameras and developing services would make photography a household activity, bought full rights to Velox for the then astonishing sum of $1 million.
With that windfall, Baekeland, his wife Celine (known as “Bonbon”) and two children moved to Snug Rock, a palatial estate north of Yonkers, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River. There, in a barn he converted into a lab, he began foraging for his next big hit. It wasn’t long before the burgeoning electrical industry seemed to say just one word to him: insulators.
The initial tease for Baekeland – “Doc Baekeland” to many – was the rising cost of shellac. For centuries, the resinous secretions that Laccifer lacca beetles deposited on trees had provided a cottage industry in southern Asia, where peasants heated and filtered it to produce a varnish for coating and preserving wood products. Shellac also happened to be an effective electrical insulator. Early electrical workers used it as a coating to insulate coils, and molded it into stand-alone insulators by pressing together layers of shellac-impregnated paper.
When electrification began in earnest in the first years of the century, demand for shellac soon outstripped supply. Baekeland recognized a killer ap when he saw one. If only he could come up with a synthetic substitute for shellac.
Others nearly beat him to it. As early as 1872, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer was investigating the recalcitrant residue that gathered in the bottom of glassware that had been host to reactions between phenol (a turpentine-like solvent distilled from coal tar, which the gas-lighting industry produced in bulk) and formaldehyde (an embalming fluid distilled from wood alcohol). Von Baeyer set his sights on new synthetic dyes, however, not insulators. To him, the ugly, insoluble gunk in his glassware was a sign of a dead end.
To Baekeland and others aiming to find commercial opportunities in the nascent electrical industry, that gunk was a signpost pointing toward something great. The challenge for Baekeland and his rivals was to find some set of conditions – some slippery ratio of ingredients and heat and pressure – that would yield a more workable, shellac-like substance. Ideally it would be something that would dissolve in solvents to make insulating varnishes and yet be as moldable as rubber.
Starting around 1904, Baekeland and an assistant began their search. Three years later, after filling laboratory books with page after page of failed experiments, Baekeland finally developed a material that he dubbed in his notebooks “Bakelite.” The key turned out to be his “bakelizer,” a heavy iron vessel that was part pressure cooker and part basement boiler. With it, he was able to control the formaldehyde-phenol reaction with more finesse than had anyone before him.
Initial heating of the phenol and formaldehyde (in the presence of an acid or base to get the reaction going) produced a shellac-like liquid good for coating surfaces like a varnish. Further heating turned the liquid into a pasty, gummier goo. And when Baekeland put this stuff into the bakelizer, he was rewarded with a hard, translucent, infinitely moldable substance. In a word: plastic.
He filed patent applications and soon began leaking word of his invention to other chemists. In 1909 Baekeland unveiled the world’s first fully synthetic plastic at a meeting of the New York chapter of the American Chemical Society. Would-be customers discovered it could be fashioned into molded insulation, valve parts, pipe stems, billiard balls, knobs, buttons, knife handles and all manner of items.
It was 20th century alchemy. From something as vile as coal tar came a remarkably versatile substance. It wasn’t the first plastic, however. Celluloid had been commercially available for decades as a substitute for tortoise-shell, horn, bone and other materials. But celluloid, which had developed a reputation as a cheap mimic of better traditional materials, was derived from chemically treated cotton and other cellulose-containing vegetable matter. Bakelite was lab-made through and through. It was 100% synthetic.
Baekeland founded the General Bakelite Corp. to both make and license the manufacture of Bakelite. Competitors soon marketed knockoffs–most notably Redmanol and Condensite, which Thomas Edison used in a failed attempt to dominate the nascent recording industry with “unbreakable” phonograph disks. The presence of inauthentic Bakelite out there led to an early 20th century version of the “Intel Inside” logo. Items made with the real thing carried a “tag of genuineness” bearing the Bakelite name. Following drawn-out patent wars, Baekeland negotiated a merger with his rivals that put him at the helm of a veritable Bakelite empire.
Bakelite became so visible in so many places that the company advertised it as “the material of a thousand uses.” It became the stuff of everything from cigar holders and rosary beads to radio housings,distributor caps and telephone casings. A 1924 TIME cover story on Baekeland reported that those familiar with Bakelite’s potential “claim that in a few years it will be embodied in every mechanical facility of modern civilization.”
In truth, Bakelite – whose more chemically formal name is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride – was just a harbinger of the age of plastics. Since Bakelite’s heyday, researchers have churned out a polysyllabic catalog of plastics: polymethylmethacrylate (Plexiglas),polyesters, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC, a.k.a. vinyl), polyhexamethylene adipamide (the original nylon polymer), polytetraperfluoroethylene (Teflon), polyurethane, poly- this, poly-that.
In 1945, a year after Baekeland died, annual plastic production in the U.S. reached more than 400,000 tons. In 1979, 12 years after The Graduate, the annual volume of plastic manufactured overtook that of steel, the symbol of the Industrial Revolution. Last year nearly 47 million tons of plastic were produced.
Today plastic is nearly everywhere, from the fillings in our teeth to the chips in our computers (researchers are developing flexible transistors made of plastic instead of silicon so they can make marvels such as a flat-panel television screen that will roll like a scroll up your living-room wall). Plastic may not be as vilified now as it was in 1967, but it’s still a stuff that people love and hate. Every time a grocery clerk asks, “Paper or plastic?,” the great debate between old and new, natural and synthetic, biodegradable and not, silently unfolds in a shopper’s breast in the instant it takes to decide on the answer.