Where Does Bakelite Come From?

I met Hugh Karraker in July 2016 during my radio exhibition at our local library. Here's a link to that press release and some photos from that exhibit. Hugh's mother is Leo Hendrik Baekeland's grand daughter.

Hugh is the executive producer of "All Things Bakelite; the Age of Plastic,"  the film commemorating his great grandfather's legacy. The film airs on public television stations around the country through the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).

On my recent visit to Hugh's house, I was able to find out many things about Leo Baekeland and the history of Bakelite as well as family stories that may not be in the history books. A timeline of Leo's life is here.

Bakelite was patented in 1907 and is an early plastic for commercial uses. It is a thermoset emulsion from a chemical reaction between phenol with formaldehyde. Early uses for Bakelite included radios and electronics, auto parts, housewares and jewelry items. Bakelite is still being manufactured today, primarily for use in the automotive industry and in space exploration. Many highly collectible vacuum tube radios are made of Bakelite.


Hugh told me he was born after Leo Baekeland had already died in 1944, but he remembers walking through his great grandfather's laboratory located at Snug Rock (one of three homes in Harmony Park), located on Roberts Lane in Yonkers, New York.

Retro Radio Farm picture of Snug Rock

Hugh recalls his mother describing her grandfather Leo as kind, strong and silent, and generous to those he loved. Here's Leo's laboratory building on the property in Yonkers:

Hugh showed me some of the earliest examples of Bakelite from Leo's lab that have been passed down from family members:

 Also, some pictures of Leo Baekeland's lab. Date not known.


It is no doubt Bakelite has a prominent place with radios. But, Bakelite is even more important when you stop to consider its place in the history of plastics,  industry and technology, as well as American culture.

Hugh explores this with greater detail in "All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic," a 59 minute documentary film plus a 21 minute version i s available in a two DVD Box set are available for sale here.

Here's a schedule of upcoming public television air dates in the USA.

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