During the first years of the twentieth century, the demand for shellac outstripped the supply. It wasn’t because people developed a sudden penchant for shiny furniture. Electricity was starting to take the world by storm and electrification required the use of insulating materials and shellac was a very effective insulator! The problem was that it was hard to come by. Shellac is the resinous secretion deposited on some species of Asian trees by Laccifer lacca beetles. Workers scrape off the resin, heat it, and filter it to produce the commercial product. Leo Baekland, A Belgian chemist who had emigrated to America, was aware of this problem and sought a solution. Money to fund the research was not a problem for Baekland since he had already struck it rich by inventing Velox photographic paper which was the first paper that could be printed with artificial light. Velox was a silver chloride contact print paper, meaning that the negative would be placed on top of the paper, followed by light exposure. Previously strong sunlight was needed to form a print, but now even gaslight would do.
The Kodak Company capitalized on this property and actually introduced Velox as the “first of the true gaslight papers.” George Eastman, head of Kodak, had purchased the Velox idea from Baekeland who approached him one day hoping to sell the invention for $25,000. But before Baekland ever mentioned any amount, Eastman offered him the staggering sum of a million dollars. With the money, Baekland bought an estate In Yonkers, N.Y. and converted a barn into a lab. This is where he took up the challenge of making artificial shellac. He was aware of the fact that German chemist Adolf von Baeyer had learned back in 1872 that phenol, a solvent distilled from coal tar, reacted with formaldehyde to form a resin that gucked up laboratory glassware. To von Baeyer this was a curse, but to Baekland it presented an opportunity. Indeed, he developed a reactor in which the reagents could be combined and heated under high pressure to produce a material that was very similar to shellac and could be readily moulded. In all modesty, he called this first truly synthetic plastic, Bakelite. It turned out to be an excellent electrical insulator, but that was only the beginning. Bakelite could be formulated into buttons, knife handles, billiard balls, radios, telephones and records. The synthetic plastic industry was born, and all because Leo Baekland wanted to reproduce the chemical secretions of an Asian bug. His original “Baekelizer,” a relic of great historical importance, is now located at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.
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