All Things Bakelite (2018)

July 18th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: John E. Maher; Documentary about Leo Hendrik Baekeland, narrated by Adam Behr; USA 2018, 59 min.

Everything you needed to know about the origins of plastic is here in John E Maher’s watchable docu-drama that sheds a light Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), the Belgian born inventor of Bakelite, which under its common name, Plastic, has dominated our lives since 1907.

Plastic is a dirty word nowadays, but it was hailed as a miracle back in the day when Baekeland first invented the substance. His biographer, Carl Kaufmann, and even a flamenco dancer sing his praises, Mark Ferreira, re-creating dramatised insight into the genius who was not keen on other people.

Born in Ghent, Baekeland married Celine Swarts, the daughter of his professor at the town’s university. But instead of following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, he emigrated with his wife to the USA in 1889. The couple would have three children, two of which survived their childhood. An inventor at heart, Baekeland struck gold first by coming up with a new photographic paper in 1893, the rights of which were bought up by the Eastman company making Baekeland independent and ready for the big step forward in 1907.

Bakelite was a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, but Baekeland “hit a wall, like his competitors, but he found a door”. The original mixture was too sticky to be formatted, and it took Baekeland 680 attempts to find a solution for its adaption in all forms possible. Radio, telephone, cars – all mass-produced articles soon relied on the new invention. Others copied Baekeland, and only in 1923 did a judge gave him he sole right for the production of the new formulary.

Baekeland was in love with cars, he even got a speeding ticket for driving at 30 in a 20 mph zone. But behind the scenes, he was an anxious, lonely and nervous man, just the opposite his wife, a socialite who loved to give parties. Her husband felt safest on his yacht, where he spent hours on his own: “He was not a people person”.

But Bakelite would soon find its way into Hollywood: art-deco design dominated the features of Busby Berkeley, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the invention of the first Baby Monitor in 1937. In 1940 Bakelite was the foundation for the first Hawaiian guitar, which was played later on SNL. But crucially the film points to the inevitable downside: plastic is not bio-degradable and will be with us forever – even if, in the future new components make it more eco friendly.

That hydrogen bombs also have a use for Bakelite, is another irony and makes a quote by Kaufmann particularly poignant: “Plastic is the finest and worst expression of mankind”. Baekeland, who was nocturnal in his habits, often feeling like a ‘wandering ghost’, leaves us with pithy food for thought, a Professor of the History of Design at Pratt Institute exclaiming “the heart of Bakelite is the American soul”.

Short and to the point, Maher uses archive material to make his points, his re-staging of Baekeland life is not always successful, and his admiration for chemistry as a whole is obviously questionable. Still, we get to know the man who left us with a major long-term problem, by solving all our daily needs. AS

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