Bakelite film highlights the inventor of the first plastic

The automobile is well-known as Henry Ford’s invention. It is hard to think of a light bulb without Thomas Edison coming to mind.  However, synthetic plastic, an invention just as significant as the car and the light bulb, does not yield the same instant name recognition for Leo Baekeland.

On Nov. 3 at 6 p.m., the film “All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic” will be shown in Strosacker Auditorium.  Following the film, at 7 p.m., there will be a question and answer session with the film’s director, John Maher, and its executive producer, Hugh Karraker.  The film is being shown free of charge to students and the public.

The film explores the life of Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland, inventor of Bakelite, the first modern plastic. Baekeland, a Belgian scientist, also invented Velox photographic paper prior to inventing Bakelite.

“Without polymers, we cannot live even one day in our modern society,” said Hatsuo Ishida, professor in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering and host of the film. “All these major activities [were] started by one man, Leo Baekeland, little more than a century ago. This movie is about how he started the business, how he influenced the society scientifically, economically and artistically.”

Bakelite is a plastic that is very resistant to change when heated, and was originally used in electrical switches and automobile caps. Today, Bakelite is still used in many items, including jewelry, telephones and a multitude of others. Bakelite was crucial to mass production and the development of other industrial plastics.

“Today, no matter how many polymers are available, no single polymer is used to make so many types of products,” Ishida said. “The movie will allow you to feel the unimaginable impact Baekeland brought about to our society.”

The film is the product of years of collaborative work between several people.  The executive producer and Baekeland’s great-grandson, Hugh Karraker, wanted to create this film as an effort to explore and showcase the legacy of his great-grandfather and his invention.

“Hugh is one of many people today who commit themselves to search for their roots and to take time to celebrate the legacy of their relatives,” Maher said.  “We all have a story that many others can relate to in some way.”

The film explores Baekeland’s life by utilizing a plethora of primary sources, like Baekeland’s hand-written diaries.  In addition, the film features historical re-enactments, interviews with experts in fields of science and history and first-person accounts.

“All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic” relied heavily on the collaboration of everyone involved in the filmmaking process.  

“One mind sitting in the dark theatre has to connect with one mind weaving the story,” Maher said.  “Films made with a [c]orporate [c]ommittee process fail because they lose that connection with the audience. In the end, it’s got to be fun for all or it doesn’t work.”

Karraker and Maher both believe that this is a great opportunity for students and the public to learn about a man that had a huge influence on society through his invention.  

“I believe learning about Baekeland’s important discovery of a hundred years ago will encourage students and professionals in the field to make new discoveries in today’s polymer world,” Karraker said.


Film: All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic

Director:John Maher

Date: Nov. 3 at 6 p.m.

Location: Strosacker Auditorium