(Sept. 17, 2007) — Thank you so much for your Aug. 6 issue, “Celebrating a Century of Plastics,” especially the part on Leo Baekeland. It brought back many memories.
I entered the plastics industry in 1959 in one of the business administration departments that led me to plastics customer service. By 1966, I was in sales training at Bound Brook, N.J., with Ed Vail and Fred Ducca, who were the technical service department of Union Carbide's thermoset division at the time (the trade name “Bakelite” having been usurped for all of Carbide's plastics by then).
Vail used to claim that Baekeland fired him — twice! Yet he was hired back by his boss, Gordon Brown, who told him “Don't let Baekeland see you!”
Brown was a legend in his own right and one of the first Bakelite salespeople. In the days when salespeople traveled by train, he heard of a young man named Donald Dew Sr. in Canastota N.Y., setting up a molding shop. Brown rolled up his sleeves and helped Dew lay the foundation block for Diemolding. He and Dew built a strong relationship that led to that company being one of Bakelite's first and oldest customers, as they were mine when I went on the road in early 1967.
The competitors I faced in my Ohio assignment in those days were gentlemen who never failed to “help” a young, wet-behind-the-ears sales guy. Deb Larrick of Plenco even helped out at a molding trial at Cuyahoga Molded Plastics for one of my compounds.
Cuyahoga was compression molding switch breaker covers in a 16-cavity mold using preheated preforms, and a 350° F mold temperature. The foreman knew it was 350°, because when he spit tobacco juice on the mold, it sizzled. He took one of the parts out of the press and handed it to me, flat in the palm of my hand.
Most of the old-time first-line foremen were missing a finger or two as well, because there was no such thing as a safety gate. I quickly learned to hold a hot part by its parting-line edge.
Both Larrick and Ralph Barrett of Durez got their introduction to thermosets in the Cambridge, Ohio, operations of Continental Can, molding container lids. Con Can spawned several molding shops in Ohio. Everybody knew everybody else and it was hard making progress against my competitors until I developed a little gray hair.
Then, there was Rudy Frey, who owned Elyria Molding and Engineering. Rudy hated it when you walked into his place wearing a tie, and he only told you once. After that, woe to you if you came in wearing your tie. Most of us learned to leave our ties in the car. He was a brilliant engineer, whose forte was building jigs, fixtures and finishing devices to automate the final steps of part completion. Frey had been chief engineer at General Industries before he set out on his own.
My one claim to fame in the history of Bakelite was introducing the injection molding of phenolics, when Westinghouse decided to bring its steam-iron handle molding in-house.
That effort, in turn, led to an assignment to do market development for polysulfone, a new high-temperature material.
But that's another story.