Saturday, February 4, 2017

Bakelite -- First Synthetic Plastic

Bakelite , sometimes spelled Baekelite), or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, is an early plastic. It is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It was developed by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York, in 1907.

One of the first plastics made from synthetic components, Bakelite was used for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children's toys, and firearms. The "retro" appeal of old Bakelite products has made them collectible.

Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark on November 9, 1993, by the American Chemical Society in recognition of its significance as the world's first synthetic plastic.


Bakelite has a number of important properties. It can be molded very quickly, allowing identical units to be mass-produced. Moldings are smooth, retain their shape and are resistant to heat, scratches, and destructive solvents. It is also resistant to electricity, and prized for its low conductivity. It is not flexible.

Phenolic resin products may swell slightly under conditions of extreme humidity or perpetual dampness. When rubbed or burnt, Bakelite has a distinctive, acrid, sickly-sweet or fishy odor

Applications and Usage

These characteristics made Bakelite particularly suitable as a molding compound, an adhesive or binding agent, a varnish, and as a protective coating. Bakelite was particularly suitable for the emerging electrical and automobile industries because of its extraordinarily high resistance to electricity, heat and chemical action.

The earliest commercial use of Bakelite in the electrical industry was the molding of tiny insulating bushings the size of mustard seeds, made in 1908 for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation by Richard W. Seabury of the Boonton Rubber Company. Bakelite was soon used for non-conducting parts of telephones, radios and other electrical devices, including bases and sockets for light bulbs and electron tubes, supports for any type of electrical components, automobile distributor caps and other insulators. By 1912, it was being used to make billiard balls, since its elasticity and the sound it made were similar to ivory.

                                                    Bakelite distributor top and side view

During World War I, Bakelite was used widely for machine parts, particularly electrical systems. Important projects included the Liberty Motor, the wireless telephone and radio phone and the use of micarta-bakelite propellors in the NBS-1 bomber and the DH-4B aeroplane.

Bakelite's availability and ease and speed of molding helped to lower the costs of production and increase product availability so that both telephones and radios became common household consumer goods. It was also very important to the developing automobile industry. It was soon found in myriad other consumer products ranging from pipe stems and buttons to saxophone mouthpieces, cameras, early machine guns, and appliance casings.

Beginning in the 1920s, it became a popular material for jewelry. Designer Coco Chanel included Bakelite bracelets in her costume jewelry collections. Designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli used it for jewelry and also for specially designed dress buttons. Later, Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, was enthusiastic about Bakelite. Bakelite was also used to make presentation boxes for Breitling watches. Jewelry designers such as Jorge Caicedo Montes De Oca still use vintage Bakelite materials to make designer jewelry.

By 1930, designer Paul T. Frankl considered Bakelite a "Materia Nova", "expressive of our own age". By the 1930s, Bakelite was used for game pieces like chessmen, poker chips, dominoes and mahjong sets. Kitchenware made with Bakelite, including canisters and tableware, was promoted for its resistance to heat and to chipping. In the mid-1930s, Northland marketed a line of skis with a black "Ebonite" base, a coating of Bakelite. By 1935, it was used in solid-body electric guitars.  Performers such as Jerry Byrd loved the tone of Bakelite guitars but found them difficult to keep in tune.

The British children's construction toy Bayko, launched in 1933, originally used Bakelite for many of its parts, and took its name from the material.

During World War II, Bakelite was used in a variety of wartime equipment including pilot's goggles and field telephones. It was also used for patriotic wartime jewelry. In 1943, the thermosetting phenolic resin was even considered for the manufacture of coins, due to a shortage of traditional material. Bakelite and other non-metal materials were tested for usage for the one cent coin in the US before the Mint settled on zinc-coated steel.

In 1947, Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren was convicted of forgery, after chemist and curator Paul B. Coremans proved that a purported Vermeer contained Bakelite, which van Meegeren had used as a paint hardener.

Bakelite was sometimes used as a substitute for metal in the magazine, pistol grip, fore grip, hand guard, and butt stock of firearms. Some early AK-74 rifles have been identified as using Bakelite, but most were made with AG-S4, commonly mistaken for Bakelite.

By the late 1940s, newer materials were superseding Bakelite in many areas. Phenolics are less frequently used in general consumer products today due to their cost and complexity of production and their brittle nature. They still appear in some applications where their specific properties are required, such as small precision-shaped components, molded disc brake cylinders, saucepan handles, electrical plugs, switches and parts for electrical irons, as well as in the area of inexpensive board and tabletop games produced in China, Hong Kong and India. Items such as billiard balls, dominoes and pieces for board games like chess, checkers, and backgammon are constructed of Bakelite for its look, durability, fine polish, weight, and sound. Common dice are sometimes made of Bakelite for weight and sound, but the majority are made of a thermoplastic polymer such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Bakelite continues to be used for wire insulation, brake pads and related automotive components, and industrial electrical-related applications. Bakelite stock is still manufactured and produced in sheet, rod and tube form for industrial applications in the electronics, power generation and aerospace industries, and under a variety of commercial brand names.

Phenolic resins have been commonly used in ablative heat shields. Soviet heatshields for ICBM warheads and spacecraft reentry consisted of asbestos textolite, impregnated with Bakelite. Bakelite is also used in the mounting of metal samples in metallography.

Collectable Status

Bakelite items, particularly jewelry and radios, have become a popular collectible. The term Bakelite is sometimes used in the resale market to indicate various types of early plastics, including Catalin and Faturan, which may be brightly colored, as well as items made of Bakelite material.

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