A handsome chemist with great business instincts

Leo Hendrik Arthur Baekeland (Sint-Martens-Latem, November 14, 1863 – Beacon, New York, February 23, 1944)

The Flemish chemist Leo Hendrik Arthur Baekeland has two great inventions to his name and one of them is always forgotten.

With the first invention he became so immeasurably rich that he had all the time and peace to also develop the synthetic resin Bakelite. Baekeland was born near Ghent in 1863 as the son of a poor cobbler-pub owner.

It has never been proven that he was also a descendant of the infamous gang leader Bakelandt, as legend has it. At the University of Ghent he developed from a mediocre student into an excellent physicist and chemist.

His knowledge and zest for work attracted the attention of Professor Théodore Swarts, who promoted him to his assistant position.

In addition to his work at the university, Baekeland also conducted research into the development and improvement of photographic emulsions. To commercialize his ideas, he founded a small company, but it quickly went bankrupt.

He felt that there was more money to be made in industry than at university. In 1889 he married Céline Swarts, the daughter of his professor. Because he wanted an academic career for his son-in-law, Professor Swarts was strongly opposed to this marriage.

And it was precisely that anger from his father-in-law that was a great happiness for Baekeland. To avoid all quarrels, the young couple fled to the United States that same year.

As a 26-year-old, Baekeland first joined a chemical company that produced film and bromosilver paper. But he became seriously ill. He was confined to a sick bed for months. He even faced death. That long time also gave him the opportunity to think about his future. He came to the conclusion that he needed to focus on a single goal and decided to develop a new type of photographic paper. Until then, photos had to be developed in daylight. His velox paper was the first photographic paper that could be exposed to artificial light. Its success was so great that Eastman Kodak took over Baekeland's small company in 1898 for the astronomical sum of $700,000 (a hundred million dollars today). The contract stated that Baekeland had to permanently withdraw from the photographic industry.

The young Gentenaar was 35 at the time and very rich. He built a house in New York, bought a villa in Florida and bought two pleasure boats.

In triumph, Leo Baekeland traveled to Ghent in 1900 and organized a banquet in the Hôtel de la Poste for his former professors, his fellow students, members of scientific associations and representatives of public administrations.

However, the world that had produced him was consumed with jealousy: only six people showed up for the party. Baekeland furiously pocketed his speech, scrapped his plans to invest in Ghent and decided never to return to his hometown.

In 1905, tired of doing nothing for so long, he resumed the research he had started twenty years earlier at the University of Ghent: the study of the reaction between phenol and formaldehyde.

He had a private laboratory built in Yonkers, New York, in which he employed forty men, and he succeeded in developing a plastic substance that would soon conquer the world under the name 'Bakelite'.

In between, he made a months-long trip with car and driver through Europe (summer 1906) and wrote a book about it entitled: A car trip with the family across Europe.

In 1910, he founded the multinational General Bakelite Company in New Jersey, which brought hundreds of Bakelite applications to market. At its peak, the company supplied 15,000 different parts to 35 major companies.

Bakelite gave a face to progress: from door handles to hair dryers, from thermos flasks to furniture, from ashtrays to vacuum cleaners and from pen trays to candy boxes: everything was possible in Bakelite.

After retiring from business in his old age, Baekeland spent six months of the year in Coconut Grove, Florida. He lived very isolated and curiously enough only fed on canned food.

For example, one meal consisted of a can of Campbell's soup that he stirred up with seawater, followed by a can of sardines and a cup of instant coffee. He sometimes had this meal served on a Bakelite tray.

Baekeland vehemently opposed the purchase of superfluous luxuries such as shoes and walked exclusively in sneakers. He made his own wine and brewed his own beer.

In 1944 he died, aged eighty, of a cerebral hemorrhage in a sanatorium in New York. He left behind a family business with branches on three continents. His son George Washington quickly got rid of everything and he disinherited his three children Cornelia, Fred and Brooks. Don't worry, the grandchildren were also conceived directly by their grandfather with a fortune.
Brooks Baekeland married the jet set lady Barbara Daly. Together they led an extravagant existence; Barbara committed incest with her heavily drug-addicted son Tony, who killed her in 1972 with a kitchen knife.

Tony Baekeland – Leo's great-grandson – was found lifeless in his cell at Rikers Island Prison on March 21, 1981. Tony had suffocated himself by pulling a plastic bag over his head.

His hateful father commented: 'It was a nice ending for a Baekeland, in plastic anyway.' The decadent existence of three generations of Baekeland was later processed in novels, scandalous biographies, plays and films.

Improved Bakelite is still in the top five most commonly used plastics, ranging from frying pan handles to space probe heat shields.

In 1999, the American magazine Time included Leo Baekeland along with Einstein and Freud in its list of the twenty greatest thinkers and scientists of the twentieth century.

When Flanders went looking for 'the greatest Belgian' at the end of 2004, poor Baekeland did not get any further than 32nd place.

In New York's Sleepy Hollow cemetery, however, he finds himself in the right entourage: steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, automaker Walter Chrysler, American Tobacco boss GW Hill (of Lucky Strike), IBM founder Thomas Watson and the first great American writer: Irvin Washington.

A German legacy

In 1872, the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer had already tried to mix phenol and formaldehyde – hydrocarbons obtained from coal. He obtained a resinous product with which you could do little.

In Ghent, Von Baeyer was assistant to Friedrich Kekulé, a German to whom Théodore Swarts later became assistant. That Swarts became the professor and later the father-in-law of Baekeland. For example, Baekeland's research into phenol/formaldehyde was a kind of legacy.

Through years of systematic research, Baekeland was the first to produce a solid with it in 1907.



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