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Who invented plastic? New documentary shines spotlight on the genius we hardly know

In the breezy and informative 58-minute documentary “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic,” we’re introduced to the man whose name should be as well-known as Edison or Westinghouse or Bell or Tesla or Ford: Leo Hendrik Baekeland.

The story of Leo Hendrick Baekeland, the Belgian chemist who invented a more usable form of plastic, highlights “All Things Bakelite.”
The story of Leo Hendrick Baekeland, the Belgian chemist who invented a more usable form of plastic, highlights “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic.”
The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC

“Ben. I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” — Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin Braddock, in “The Graduate”

Take a moment to look around you. Chances are great you’ll see a number of items made of or at least containing the ubiquitous and useful and incredibly versatile and also problematic synthetic polymer known as plastic. From beverage bottles to food wrappers, from automobile parts to outdoor furniture, from produce bags to your computer keyboard, plastic is such a key ingredient of so many elements of everyday life it’s hard to imagine a world without plastic — and yet it’s been around for only a little more than century.

In the breezy and informative 58-minute documentary “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic,” we’re introduced to the man whose name should be as well-known as Edison or Westinghouse or Bell or Tesla or Ford: Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the eccentric and brilliant Belgian chemist who invented Velox photographic paper in 1893 and then topped that breakthrough innovation in 1907 with his creation of Bakelite, the first nonflammable plastic that retained its shape after being heated. Plastic eventually became a key ingredient in electrical insulators, telephone casings, radios, kitchenware etc., etc., to the point where it was hard to imagine a world WITHOUT Baekeland’s invention.

“All Things Bakelite” draws upon interviews with descendants of Baekeland and experts in the field such as research chemists, along with instructive graphics, dramatic re-creations and excerpts from Baekeland’s extensive journals. (You gotta love it when a genius keeps a daily diary.) Unfortunately, the filmmakers also indulged in whimsical but not entirely effective devices, including a cheesy guy in a tuxedo running around Times Square asking people, “What is Bakelite?” (Spoiler alert: nobody knows), and some oddball musical numbers about plastic. With such a short running time in the first place, these gimmicky sidebars only serve to distract us from an inherently compelling story.

“Future Strange” is one of the distracting musical numbers in “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic.”
“Future Strange” is one of the distracting musical numbers in “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic.”
The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC

The doc is most interesting when chronicling Baekeland’s story, laying out how he was able to succeed in creating a useful plastic while so many other esteemed scientists couldn’t get the formula quite right. And it’s cool to hear from designers and artists talking about the role of plastics in the streamlined, Art Deco movement. We also learn Baekeland was something of a recluse who loved his family but preferred to spend time alone with his work, and that he had to deal with copyright infringements and legal entanglements that took him away from his work. Baekeland did well for himself, but he was not a self-promoter and businessman on the level of a Thomas Edison or a George Westinghouse.

Of course, the durability of plastic is an immense double-edged sword. “All Things Bakelite” devotes only a relatively brief segment to the fact that plastic doesn’t decompose and is the source of worldwide pollution, toxicity and solid waste. “It’s probably a good thing that Leo Baekeland could not foresee the misuse of plastic today,” says Hugh Karraker, the great-grandson of Baekeland. “Bakelite is not biodegradable. It’ll be with us forever.”