Leo Baekeland (1863–1944) was born in Belgium. He studied chemistry at the University of Ghent and earned his PhD before coming to the United States in 1889.
His first successful invention was a new type of photographic paper called Velox that could be developed under artificial light. He sold the rights to Kodak and used the money to fund his own laboratory.
In 1907, Baekeland’s experiments with phenol and formaldehyde yielded the first fully synthetic plastic, which he named Bakelite. Easy to mold, incredibly strong, and extremely versatile, Bakelite was dubbed “The Material of a Thousand Uses,” with applications ranging from electrical insulators to telephones to jewelry.
The steam pressure vessel pictured here was used by Leo Baekeland around 1909 to produce commercial quantities of Bakelite, by reacting phenol and formaldehyde under pressure at high temperatures.
The "Bakelizer," part of the National Museum of American History's collections, is still in operating condition. It is about 35 inches wide, 40 inches deep, and nearly 72 inches tall.
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