On this day, 104 years ago, a Belgian chemist introduced to the world his invention called Bakelite, one of the first plastics made from synthetic components. Learn more about this invention and how it became involved with photography in this installment of Today in History.
On February 5, 1909, during a meeting of the American Chemical Society, Belgium-born American chemist Leo Baekeland unveiled his invention: bakelite, a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin and one of the first plastics created using synthetic components.
To put it simply, bakelite was made by controlling the temperature and pressure applied to phenol and formaldehyde. The resulting material is hard (but also brittle), moldable, heat-resistant, and electrically non-conductive. With these properties, bakelite became what Baekeland called “the material of 1000 uses.”
Baekeland applied for his invention’s patent on July 13, 1907 and it was granted on December 7, 1909. The Bakelite Corporation was established in 1922 out of the merger of General Bakelite Company (founded by Baekeland in 1910), the Condensite Company (founded by J.W. Aylesworth), and the Redmanol Chemical Products Company (founded by L.V. Redman). Factories were built in Birmingham, England around 1928, and in New Jersey in 1929.
From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, Bakelite was widely used for various industrial applications such as automobiles, components of electrical devices, jewelries and jewelry boxes, kitchenware, game pieces, and—yes, you guessed it—cameras. Kodak was one of the first and best known companies to use bakelite for their cameras, with the simple and inexpensive Brownie cameras being some of the popular ones.
If you would like to learn more about other bakelite cameras aside from Kodak’s Brownie line, you might want to check out some posts by collector Dana Kennedy on his blog.
Are you one of the lucky ones to have a bakelite camera in your collection? Show us and tell us something about it in the comments below!