Plastics exhibit in Yonkers pays tribute to Bakelite

February 24, 2010 3:18:07 PM PST
There are certain inventions we all know about, including Thomas Edison and the light bulb and Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Then there are others you've probably never thought about. There is one other invention that was discovered right in our backyard.

"It was really the first inorganic plastic, sort of the forerunner to all the modern plastics which are made in thousands of varieties today," said Bart Bland, curator of the Hudson River Museum.

Bland is talking about Bakelite, a substance created in 1909 inside a barn in Yonkers.

"It seemed like such a modest place for such an amazing discovery to come out of," he said.

Scientist Leo Bakeland had already made a fortune creating a photographic paper, so he decided to spend his time tinkering. The result was Bakelite, a combination of phenol and formaldehyde.

"Those two things are put together in what was originally called a Bakelizer," Bland said. "It looked like sort of like something that would come from outer space. It's heated and pressurized and eventually forms a thick, dark brown resin."

That resin was then shaped into a number of things, like office supplies.

"This is 1930s design at its best," Bland said. "This big, black, sort of lumbering, yet sleek pieces. I think they are really quite beautiful."

Bakelite initially was made in darker colors, but eventually technology allowed for brighter colors. That led to Bakelite jewelry and kitchen items. And items that had been made with expensive materials like ebony and ivory soon became affordable when made with Bakelite, like billiard balls.

Bakelite is strong and heat resistant, so it's been used for everything from film equipment to toilet seats, all of which are on display at the Hudson River Museum, just a mile from where Bakeland made his discovery.

And while plastics have changed quite a bit in the century since then, Bakelite isn't out of the picture.

"I'm not sure that Leo Bakeland would've necessarily foreseen all of the things that have come out of plastics," Bland said. "I think that he would be very surprised."

The exhibit runs through June 6. For more information on the exhibit, visit HRM.org.


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