Plastic Turns 100: Bakelite's Birthday One hundred years ago today, Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland applied for a U.S. patent on a substance he dubbed Bakelite, the first "true" synthetic plastic. Michele Norris talks with Dr. Jeffery Meikle, a historian of American plastic, about how Baekeland's invention affected the world's thinking.
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Plastic Turns 100: Bakelite's Birthday

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Plastic Turns 100: Bakelite's Birthday

Plastic Turns 100: Bakelite's Birthday

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

One hundred years ago today, application number 942699 arrived at the U.S. patent office in Washington. It was titled Method of Making Insoluble Products of Phenol and Formaldehyde. And as its author, it listed Belgian-born chemist, Leo H. Baekeland of Yonkers, New York. In three tightly worded pages, Baekeland describes the application of heat and pressure to biproducts of coal tar and wood alcohol. Under these conditions, he writes, there is obtained in, from one to two hours or less, a hard, compact, perfectly homogenous mass similar in its properties to hard rubber or to ivory.

Baekeland was describing something that would very, literally, shape the look and feel of the next century. He called his perfectly homogenous mass Bakelite. It would later be known as plastic.

Unidentified Man: What can be made with plastics? Things as varied as buttons and batons, cosmetic containers and cockpit housings, parachutes and refrigerators, radios and razors - all contain plastics.

NORRIS: Here to walk us through a century of plastic is Jeff Meikle. He's professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He's also the author of "American Plastic: A Cultural History." Welcome to the program.

Dr. JEFF MEIKLE (American Studies Professor, University of Texas at Austin; Author, "American Plastic: A Cultural History"): Thank you. It's good to be here.

NORRIS: And as I was reading that, I'm looking around the studio here at all the plastic that surrounds me, on the table, on the phone, on the computer.

Dr. MEIKLE: Yeah. I think our world would be greatly diminished if there were no plastics at all. In fact, there was a science fiction book a few years ago that envisioned a world in which all the plastic dissolved. And things happened that we wouldn't want to see.

NORRIS: I can't imagine. First of all, it would smell really awful. But it might be very difficult from that point forward. I want to ask you about Leo H. Baekeland, the man who actually filed that patent that we just talked about. Did he realize immediately what he discovered and how it might change the world?

Dr. MEIKLE: Well, of course he didn't realize how it might change the world, but he knew that he had something unusual in his laboratory. He'd been looking for a synthetic substitute for shellac, which comes from a beetle, for use in electrical insulation, especially for varnishes for electrical coils.

And he'd been playing around with the chemical reaction of phenol and formaldehyde, which had previously yielded only a kind of porous, crusty, hard by-product that couldn't be used for anything. And in working with that, he immediately realized that he could use it, not just as a varnish, but as a liquid to impregnate layers of paper or layers of canvass material, and squeeze those together using incredible pressure to get electrically insulating sheets of material like today's Formica laminate.

NORRIS: So how did plastics actually start to work their way into everyday life in America?

Dr. MEIKLE: I think, probably, as a result of the Depression. Manufacturers were looking for ways to reinvigorate their products. Designers, industrial designers were setting up office to show manufacturers how to do that, to put these new materials before the public and to promote them as utopian miracle materials.

NORRIS: And you write that they really took off during World War II.

Dr. MEIKLE: Well, World War II - I think, as in so many other fields - sped up the development of new materials like the acrylics, which were used for bubble domes on airplanes; PVC, which we use in electrical insulation; polyethylene, which was used to insulate radar on airplanes. And then these new plastics, new polymers were ready to be employed in civilian manufacturing as soon as the war ended.

NORRIS: I'd like to fast forward, if we could, to the 1960s. This is a point when plastic seems to be spreading everywhere. And in your book, you write that baby boomers played with Wham-O, hula hoops and Frisbees, Barbie Dolls and airplane models, Lego blocks and Mattel machine guns. They ate breakfast at Formica dinette, spilled milk from polyethylene tumblers onto vinyl floors, and they left for school clutching their disposable Bic pens. As we said, plastic was everywhere at this point. At that point, did people still see it as something that was sexy and fashionable or somewhat more utilitarian?

Dr. MEIKLE: I think at that point, it was in a transitional state. Many people who went into plastics molding, which was seen as a get-rich-quick field, didn't know what they were doing. And they made products out of plastics that weren't appropriate. Like you could stub a cigarette out into a Bakelite ashtray, but you certainly couldn't stub a cigarette out into a piece of polyethylene Tupperware. It would burn a hole in it. And so plastics began to take on a connotation of being shoddy. And the industry had to fight that. And they did this by promoting the fact that anything could be molded out of plastics.

NORRIS: But there are also environmental concerns. The majority of plastics today are made from non-renewable sources. Less than 10 percent of all plastic is recycled and much of it is being exported by the U.S. to China for reprocessing at this point. Does the continued use of plastic make sense as we go forward?

Dr. MEIKLE: Actually, I think it does make sense. It's - one of the things about plastic is that it has always been a kind of democratizing material. It has made it possible to manufacture more cheaply things that otherwise would be too expensive for millions of people to have.

NORRIS: But Professor Meikle, there's no denying that tons and tons of these products remain in landfills all over the world.

Dr. MEIKLE: That's right. And they will remain there, basically, forever. I suppose that it's very similar to what you do with nuclear waste. What do you do with plastics? We are creating things that we will never be able to get rid of. And I suspect that that is the major problem with plastics.

NORRIS: You know, in the end, after studying this from all sides, is the continued use of plastic good for the society? Now, I'm asking from an industrial standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, but also in terms of aesthetics. I'm thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, you know, I don't want any of this anywhere near the home because I want to elevate the use of wood and natural substances and things that are pleasing to the eye and have some sort of communion with nature. And it's hard to think about the communion of nature when you're thinking about plastic.

Dr. MEIKLE: Yes, that's a good point. But I would say that philosophically or aesthetically, the major impact of plastic has been its malleability. And, for example, take the architecture of Frank Gehry, things like the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Now, people say that buildings like that couldn't have been designed without computer visualization, computer-aided design - that's true.

But I think that it might also not have been possible to envision those kinds of strangely curved structures, complex structures, without the experience of having built similar products, designed similar products in plastics. So you move from the old-fashion steel, iron, wood to synthetic plastics to the kinds of things that can be devised on a computer screen.

NORRIS: Thank you so much for speaking with us. And I guess we should say happy anniversary.

Dr. MEIKLE: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

NORRIS: That was a Jeffrey Meikle, professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He's also the author of "American Plastic: A Cultural History."

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