Born in Ghent, Belgium, Leo Hendrik Baekeland had an early passion for photography and developing pictures, which sparked his interest in chemistry. He studied at the University of Ghent, graduating in 1882, and received his PhD in electrochemistry from Charlottenburg Polytechnic in 1884. He was appointed Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Bruges in 1887 and returned to Ghent in 1888 as Assistant Professor of Chemistry. In 1889 he married his professor’s daughter and travelled to America, where he began working as a photographic chemist.
Baekeland moved to New York in 1891 to set up a laboratory and consultancy. During this time he developed Velox, a type of photographic printing paper that could be developed under artificial light. He sold this invention and his company to the Eastman Kodak Company in 1899 for a reputed $750,000.
Instead of retiring on this windfall, Baekeland moved with his wife to Snug Rock, a large estate north of Yonkers, New York, where he converted a barn into a laboratory and began searching for his next money-spinning product.
He began investigating the use of phenol-formaldehyde resins as a replacement for shellac. He found that the resin could be produced in a hard form, which could be moulded, cast and machined. It was extremely durable and a good insulator, ideal for use in the newly developing electrical industry. In 1909, Baekeland introduced this new product to the public as Bakelite - one of the world’s earliest fully synthetic plastics. Although it was expensive, it was a great success because its heat resistance meant it had a vast range of applications.
Baekeland was elected president of the American Chemical Society in 1924. He sold the General Bakelite Company, which he had founded in 1910, to Union Carbide in 1939.