Bakelite enabled inexpensive mass production at very high tolerances where interchangeable parts matter (ex: telephones, radios, plugs, pens, wristbands, insulators, etc…). Also, it looked fun compared to organic materials in use before Bakelite.
Baekeland’s Bakelite opened the “age of plastics.” It was moldable into any shape and, once molded, kept its shape. It did not react to heat and insulated electricity. Moldable to very tight tolerances, Bakelite was perfect for ever-smaller and more precise interchangeable parts.
Understanding that his patents would eventually expire, Baekeland worked hard branding the trademark Bakelite. After the patents expired, advertising pushed consumers to insist on genuine Bakelite despite that knockoffs were chemically identical.
Thanks to Velox photo paper, Baekeland was already rich when he invented Bakelite. However, his plastic made him fabulously wealthy. In 1939, at age 75, Baekeland sold Bakelite to Union Carbide for $16.5 million.
Later in life, he suffered mental issues, refusing to eat food that did not come from cans and fought with his son. His tombstone is granite but Bakelite seems like it would’ve been a more appropriate choice.
Baekeland, a chemistry student, worked on an improved photographic paper. Before his invention, photo papers required bright sunlight for exposure. This constraint limited photo developing to daylight hours on sunny days and made photo print results unpredictable. Baekeland created a high contrast reliable photo paper. His paper was sensitive enough to work with gas lighting, that was easier to control and predict than sunlight. He named his paper Velox and sold it to Kodak in 1899.
Baekeland’s share of the $750,000 in proceeds was $215,000, a fortune at that time. Putting the amount into context, a 6-bedroom house in Philadelphia cost $15/month to rent and the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court was paid $10,500/year. Although photo paper would make much more money over time for Kodak, Baekeland was an extremely wealthy young man.
Few companies have repeatedly proven more short-sighted over time than Kodak and, true to form, the sale came with a 20-year non-compete. Rather than hire the brilliant inventor the company locked him out of the market for decades. Instead of creating more products for Kodak, he eventually focused his efforts on plastic and invented the wildly successful Bakelite. Baekeland died extremely wealthy.