What is Bakelite?
That question, asked of Times Square visitors, opens a new documentary that provides the answer: it was the first synthetic compound, which led to plastics. Invented in 1907, the heat-resistant, nonflammable, moldable and strong material played a vital role in the distribution of electricity and development of the automotive and radio industries, among others. Today plastic is ubiquitous, or as one person observes in All Things Bakelite, “Without plastics, you’d have an alternate universe.”
And while the names of the men who invented electricity, the telephone, the automotive assembly line and rubber tires are well known, few outside the chemistry field can name the father of the plastics industry, Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863–1944). But Hugh Karraker of Redding, executive producer of All Things Bakelite and Baekeland’s great-grandson, hopes that the film about the innovator helps change that, noting, “Just as plastic touches everyone’s lives, All Things Bakelite will have relevance to many people in many differing disciplines.”
The hourlong documentary, which was screened at the Prospector Theater last month and will be shown at Redding’s Mark Twain Library on April 16, is by turns informative, humorous, educational, entertaining and thought-provoking. It addresses, as director John Maher of JEM Films described it, “the triad of attitudes toward plastics. First, ‘it’s wonderful, it can do anything’; then as people became more environmentally conscious in the 70s and 80s, ‘plastic stinks’ or you’d insult someone by calling them ‘so plastic.’ And now we are in the third phase, ‘We’ve created it, we need to learn how to live with it, recycle it and we can do better,’ showing the new directions of the material.”
All Things Bakelite uses a mix of interviews — with Karraker and a cousin, chemists, authors, designers and a Bakelite artist — photos, journals, recreation, animation, old home movies and three entertainingly original songs to tell the story of Leo Baekeland of Ghent, Belgium, his curious mind and inventions and the impact of plastics.
Baekeland traveled to New York with his wife, Céline, on a fellowship in 1889. An ambitious man, he felt his opportunities would be greater here, rather than in Ghent, where he would be a professor at the city’s renowned university. He had struggles and financial setbacks, but focused on ideas for products he felt would be commercially profitable.
His first major invention, in 1893, was Velox photographic paper, which was sold to George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Company in 1898 for a reputed $750,000 (split with two backers). That financial cushion enabled him to focus on finding a replacement for shellac made from the secretions of oriental lac beetles. He had more than 100 patents to his name by the time he sold Bakelite to Union Carbide in 1939.
For Karraker, a former actor and active locally as a trail tender, bringing the film to completion has been a labor of love that began more than a decade ago as the 100th anniversary of the filing of the U.S. Patent, on July 13, 1907, approached (it was granted in 1909). His mother, Céline, Leo’s granddaughter and named for Leo’s wife, had possession of many of Baekeland’s journals, lab books, photos, letters and other family memorabilia, but had never written an intended book, so Karraker took up the torch, founding The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC, and connecting with Bakelite-related people and institutions around the world.
Having met John Maher — formerly a cameraman for several network and PBS news programs — previously when Maher was working on a project about Redding town historian Margaret Wixted, Karraker approached him with the idea of a film on Baekeland. (Maher likes to include vignettes in his films and Wixted told of dances held at the Mark Twain Library; Maher decided to recreate the scene. Karraker and his wife Sherry were recommended as dancers, and in the scene, Sherry wore a vintage dress that belonged to 93-year-old former Reddingite Eloise Ensor.)
Knowing the time, money, emotions and number of people involved in creating a documentary, Maher suggested making a 15-minute sample, both to ascertain interest and to see how the men would work together. “I call that test period the dance of the tarantulas,” Maher said, adding that he and Karraker had a good chemistry and tolerance for each other’s quirks. Karraker said he particularly appreciated Maher’s positive attitude and injections of humor in addition to his professionalism. Craig Mikhitarian edited the hourlong version.
The sample was completed in such a way that the footage could be incorporated into a longer documentary, which, following some fits and starts called life, began in earnest two to three years ago and involved some 40 cast and crew members. A number of chemical and plastics industry organizations have already expressed interest in showing the film at conferences and seminars, as have related museums. A three-minute trailer can be viewed on YouTube by searching All Things Bakelite.
Leo Baekeland was not alone in working with combining phenol and formaldehyde in his quest to find a replacement for shellac, but through more than 800 experiments in the lab he built on his Yonkers, N.Y., property, he learned how to control the pressure and temperature of the phenol, formaldehyde with a catalyst binder blended in a contraption he designed and dubbed “the Bakelizer.” The result was a polymer that when mixed with fillers produced a hard, moldable plastic. The original Bakelizer and Baekeland’s diaries and letters, lab books, etc., are now in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.
Asked about the product name, Karraker replied, “Although, due to his humble upbringing he was not inclined to boast, Baekeland had enough ego to name his new material after himself. And enthralled with his newly adopted homeland, he Americanized the contraction of his name to Bakelite, instead of Baekelite.” It was advertised as “The Material With A Thousand Uses.”
All Things Bakelite will be shown at the Mark Twain Library, 439 Redding Road (Route 53), in Redding on Saturday, April 16, at 3 p.m. To sign up online, go to marktwainlibrary.org, or call 203-938-2545 for information.
To arrange for a showing of All Thing Bakelite, contact Marc Huberman at [email protected] or 203-770-0132. The AllThingsBakelite.com website is expected to be active mid-April.