Leo Baekeland, one of the great minds of the 20th century
Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born on 14 November 1863 in Sint-Martens-Latem, near Ghent, in Belgium. After completing his higher education at Ghent University, in 1884, he obtained a PhD in natural science and started a teaching career there. In 1889, his honeymoon took him to the United States, where he decided to settle. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1897. From 1891, the company he founded there successfully sold photographic paper which could be developed with artificial light and which was sold under the name "Velox" (quick in Latin).
In 1899, Eastman Kodak bought the "Velox" process from the company in which Léo Baekeland was a shareholder for the unhoped-for sum of $1 million; later, Baekeland revealed that he did not think that he would get more than $25,000 for the transaction. In any case, this operation financed other personal chemistry research associated with research in the world of electricity and its needs for non-flammable insulation. Up until then, it was Shellac, a resin produced by an Asian insect, the laccifer lacca, that ensured this role, but, with the boom in the electric industry it was no longer possible to meet demand. In 1909, his work produced a result when Leo Baekeland managed to create the first completely synthetic "plastic", a substance which, in all modesty, he named Bakelite. This discovery provided the basis for the development of plastics and earned its inventor the Franklin medal in 1940.
Up until the Second World War, Bakelite was the only "plastic" material on the market. It was used for telephones in black, but also in other colours for cameras, billiard balls, necklaces, plates and other objects.
Having become eccentric with the advancing years, Baekeland sold his company, the General Bakelite Company, to Union Carbide in 1939 and retired. He died on 23 February 1944 from a brain haemorrhage in Beacon, New York. TIME magazine named him one of the twenty great minds of the 20th century. His invention made a mark on his time through its varied applications and it is still used today, in particular for the body of Montblanc pens.