The significant role of Britain in the discovery and development of the first plastics is often overlooked — overshadowed, as it is, by the dominant figure of Belgian Leo Baekeland, creator and commercial champion of Bakelite in the United States.
Certainly, it was Baekeland, often called “the father of plastics,” who patented the first totally synthetic thermoset material, Bakelite, in 1907. But his first patent was registered just 24 hours before that of amiable Scottish chemist and metallurgist Sir James Swinburne, who came up with his own phenol-formaldehyde resin.
Years before Bakelite, British scientists were pioneers too in the field of semisynthetic plastics with their discovery of the molding potential of cellulose nitrate, later refined and marketed as Celluloid by John Wesley Hyatt in the United States, according to Susan Mossman, a curator at the Science Museum in London.
“Everybody thinks of Celluloid as an American story, but in fact, a lot of the work was done in this country by a man called Alexander Parkes,” added Mossman, an authority on the early plastics story who is jointly behind her museum's 2007 exhibition, “Plasticity — 100 Years of Making Plastics.”
Parkes, an artist, engraver, chemist and metallurgist who studied at London's Royal College of Chemistry, introduced Parkesine, his new moldable material linked to guncotton, to acclaim at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. At the time, its inventor anticipated many of the subsequent uses of plastics.
But Parkes' attempts to commercialize his invention foundered as the Parkesine Co. he set up in 1866 was liquidated two years later, mainly because Parkesine failed to undercut the price of rubber. The revived business eventually became the British Xylonite Co. Ltd.
It was left to American entrepreneur John Wesley Hyatt to develop the manufacturing process and successfully market popular products such as combs, collars and cuffs made from Celluloid.
“[Parkesine] was really the precursor of what we know as Celluloid. Hyatt made it clear in a lecture he gave when he got the Perkin Medal in 1914 that actually, it was not his invention,” Mossman said in a recent interview at the Science Museum.
“In the end, Parkes had 88 patents to his name [some relating to rubber], two wives and 21 children. He was a busy man. ... He was a brilliant inventor, but not a good businessman. ... He probably diversified too much and had too many interests,” Mossman said.
The Science Museum's “Plasticity” exhibit briefly traces the story from natural plastics such as horn and tortoise shell, through semisynthetic materials like shellac to the arrival of Bakelite in 1907. It highlights the story of Swinburne, also an accomplished electrical engineer and Fellow of the Royal Society, who worked on the first electric light bulb, and later inherited a title of nobility (“Sir” James) from his cousin.
Through his firm, the Birmingham, England-based Damard Lacquer Co. Ltd., Swinburne first produced hard synthetic lacquers for coating brass bedsteads. By the outbreak of the World War I, Damard — a euphemism for “damn hard,” devised in a humorous moment by Swinburne “to spare the blushes of his secretary,” says Mossman — was making resins for insulating sheet and impregnating vehicle brake linings.
Then, in an extraordinary turn of events, the great rivals, Swinburne and Baekeland were thrown together by the “Great War.” The British Government asked Swinburne to take control of a Bakelite resin plant in Cowley, England, owned by a German Baekeland licensee.
When he saw the plant, Swinburne was amazed and impressed with Baekeland's commercialization of the material, and commented on the advanced state of the production machinery in use there, according to Mossman.
Across the Atlantic, Baekeland, a keen supporter of the war effort, agreed to Damard using his patents during hostilities and, in 1927 Damard, along with two of Baekeland's British licensees, were merged to form Bakelite Ltd. His old rival Swinburne became its first chairman.
It is no coincidence, said Mossman, that 1927 was also the year when Baekeland's patents on Bakelite finally ran out.
The curator, whose book, Early Plastics: Perspectives 1850-1950, was first published in 1993, researched the Baekeland story thoroughly. For “Plasticity,” she and her team took advantage of the museum's rich array of 600 Bakelite objects, displaying some, alongside Baekeland's loaned personal possessions and documents.
Among these are the engraved silver quill pen, given to Baekeland by his wife Celine on their marriage in August 1889 and lent by his great-grandson Hugh Karraker; copied papers and family pictures from the Smithsonian archives, including the letter granting Baekeland U.S. citizenship; and a signed Baekeland book, Travels in Europe, recounting an early car journey through Europe at the start of the 1900s.
In contrast to Swinburne, who appears to have been reticent and rather secretive over his discovery, Baekeland was sure of the significance of his invention and was determined to be the first to capitalize on it, according to Mossman.
“Baekeland was said to be autocratic, and a diary entry makes clear he wanted to get there first and did not want to be beaten to it. ... He was the one who worked out how to make a commercial product [from his material] in a viable time scale using heat and pressure,” she recalled.
Baekeland, who talked of Bakelite as “the material of a thousand uses,” prized his patents.
“Baekeland defended his patents viciously and took anyone who infringed them to court. ... He got heavily into patent law and wrote a whole range of papers on it. He didn't like [the patent laws] in the U.S.,” she said.
Mossman recalled how Baekeland's pride was deeply injured in the 1920s, when he was largely ignored back in Belgium. Expecting to be the center of attention at a big event, he had hired a large room, but hardly anyone turned up. So upset was Baekeland, that he returned to the United States and never set foot in his homeland again, Mossman said.
Summing up the Bakelite inventor, she said: “Baekeland had vision. As early as 1907, he was talking about his discovery being important, going around and selling his product.
“This man had enormous presence. For example, he employed the best designers because he knew these [products] had to look good — [people like] Henry Dreyfus and Norman Bel Geddes.”
Bakelite, with properties that semisynthetics didn't have, came at a time when the automotive and electrical industries were emerging. “It was the right material at the right time,” Mossman said.
The London exhibition features a variety of somber-colored Bakelite items including Art Deco clocks and thermos flasks; classic design Ekco radios; hair dryers; telephones; ashtrays and electrical plugs and light sockets.
There's also a black 1938 coffin, billed as the largest Bakelite compression molded part ever made, found in the attic of the Bakelite company in Birmingham.
Also on display: a 1920s-era compression molding machine once used to form Bakelite dominoes.
In the 1920s, the plastics industry moved on to urea formaldehyde resins, into an era of light, bright plastics.
“You had your wonderful Hollywood films with laminates in light, bright colors. You saw Ginger Rogers in a beautiful room with her white telephone of urea formaldehyde — so there was a sort of glamour [about plastics],” Mossman said. Previously, you could only paint the Bakelite white.
Plastics, post Bakelite, became hugely popular and widely used in domestic life in the 1930s, driven on in “the poly era” with the birth of polyamide, polyethylene, and polyester, Mossman said.
“Everyone associates nylon with stockings, but actually it was the toothbrush where it first made an impact,” said Mossman, proudly pointing out the “Miracle Tuft” nylon bristle toothbrush exhibit.
The museum's exhibition highlights the huge impact eight major polymers have had on human life in the past 70 years. From the mundane polyethylene bucket and Tupperware to PVC Barbie dolls, polyester clothing, polystyrene clamshell packaging and the Bic Biro, they are part of the show.
“Plasticity,” aimed at the nonspecialist adult and teenagers, is an educational experience with interactive sections including building up your own polyethylene molecule.
Taking the story bang up to date, “Plasticity” highlights the “unseen” high-tech plastics used in computers and mobile phones; smart plastics that can change shape and consistency; bacteria killing plastics and artificial plastic blood.
“What we thought as the gallery developed was that this [plastics] is just an amazingly adaptable material,” she said. “It can be almost anything you want.
“We can make it responsive. We can make it have a good service life or a short service life. We can make it recyclable. We can make it in a whole variety of shapes, forms and colors,” Mossman said with characteristic enthusiasm.
The major exhibitions marking Bakelite's 100th anniversary this year are happening in Europe, not the United States, where Baekeland made his breakthroughs. In Belgium, the Museum for the History of Science at De Sterre is running a display, through Dec. 14 that shows the evolution of Bakelite, current applications, Baekeland's inventions in photography and his days at the University of Ghent.
The University of Ghent, where Baekeland studied and taught in his hometown, will hold a Baekeland Symposium on Sept. 23-26. The meeting, with support from the Belgian Polymer Group, will review current trends and developments in phenolics and all types of thermoset resins.
Karraker, the inventor's great-grandson son who lives in Redding, Conn., is working with the University of Ghent to try and create a permanent Bakelite display at the Chemical Heritage Foundation headquarters in Philadelphia.
Karraker, who has been a frequent speaker about the history of Bakelite, also is working with contacts in Belgium to create a documentary on Baekeland.