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Documentary celebrates life and times of the 'father of modern plastics.'

Clare Goldsberry

December 26, 2016

2 Min Read
'All Things Bakelite,' the movie, screened at Plastics Pioneers Association meeting

At the Saturday morning session of the recent Plastics Pioneers Association (PPA; McHenry, IL) fall meeting, Glenn Beall, on behalf of the Plastics History and Artifacts Committee, introduced attendees to Mr. Hugh Karraker, a great-grandson of Leo H. Baekeland. We in the industry know him as the “father of modern plastics.” Karraker provided the group with a showing of his film, All Things Bakelite. Bakelite is the original trade name that Leo Baekeland chose for his new material, which is actually phenol-formaldehyde, generally known as phenolic.

The one-hour film by John Maher explores the legacy of Leo Baekeland, who was responsible for one of the most transformative discoveries of the 20th century, said the write-up in the PPA newsletter. Karraker said, “I wanted to celebrate Baekeland’s life; his 1907 invention had a huge impact on our lives, but little is known about him.”

Glenn Beall (left) with Hugh Karraker, great-grandson of Leo H. Baekeland, at the Plastics Pioneers Association fall meeting.

Beall, writing about Karraker in the PPA fall newsletter, noted that Karraker spent more than 10 years researching his great-grandfather’s life, and had access to his mother’s notes on Baekeland’s meticulous collection of 62 hand-written diaries. “History comes alive as Maher weaves interviews with family members with beautiful period re-enactments of Baekeland—seen as a curious boy in Belgium, then as a persistent chemist and inventor in New York, and later as an old man reflecting on the toll that running the business had taken on his life,” said the PPA write-up. “Archival footage, intimate family photos and first-person accounts transport viewers back to the dawn of the modern age, when individuals like Baekeland, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others led a revolution with their inventions.”

The film presents perspectives from an ensemble of accomplished scientists, historians, artists and musicians, whose occupations are neatly wrapped in plastic. “Entertaining and informative, the film captures the wonder, as well as the curse, of Baekeland’s alchemy; for while Bakelite and its descendents became essential to our lives they have also created serious environmental consequences. All Things Bakelite confronts this double-edged sword head-on, raising an existential conflict Baekeland faced as he questioned the value of his miracle material.

I’m certain that Mr. Baekeland could never have imagined what the plastics industry would become. Very few successful inventors ever really foresee the results—or consequences—of their inventions. As in all things, the law of unintended consequences is in play. But I’m sure most in the industry would agree with me that the benefits of plastics far outweigh what many see as the disadvantages of this miraculous material that can be soft enough to wrap a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tough enough to be a car bumper or an engine part.

To see a trailer for the movie and learn more about it, go to the All Things Bakelight website.            

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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