Father of Modern Plastic’s Great-Grandson Explores His Cultural Impact

    I’d hazard a guess you use a lot of plastic – especially in these summer months at outdoor picnics and barbecues, digging in the sand at the beach, or using floats in the pool. Have you ever wondered where all that plastic came from?

    The feature-length documentary All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic, premiers Saturday, August 3 at 7 pm on HEC and gives a unique insight into these products of convenience as it celebrates the Father of Modern Plastic – chemist Leo H. Baekeland – and his work.

    Not a day goes by that we don’t use something Leo H. Baekeland made possible, yet he is not a household name (outside of the inner circles of his industry, that is). His great-grandson Hugh Karraker set out to change that with this joyous and provocative film he produced and narrates.

    The life and career of Belgian-American chemist Leo H. Baekeland, the “Father of Modern Plastic,” is celebrated in All Things Bakelite. Credit: The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC

    The life and career of Belgian-American chemist Leo H. Baekeland, the “Father of Modern Plastic,” is celebrated in All Things Bakelite. Credit: The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC

    “Baekeland’s peers were the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford,” notes Karraker, who spent more than a decade researching his great-grandfather’s detailed diaries (viewable in the Smithsonian’s collection) and connecting with the right people across a variety of disciplines, from the worlds of science, art, and even music to tell Baekeland’s story in a way that reflects the unique impact of Baekeland’s legacy.

    One of the greatest stories of science never told comes alive using re-enactments; rare archival footage and personal diaries; interviews with scientists, historians, and artists; and a highly entertaining original score. Its lively pace and quirky style appeal to anyone interested in the human drama that underlies history, science, business, and design.

    In 1907, the Belgian-born American chemist made the first wholly synthetic plastic, which he called Bakelite. The film tells Bakelite’s story from its humble origins in a home laboratory through the revolution it inspired in popular culture to current research into new, recyclable polymers that still have the desirable properties of synthetic plastic without its lasting impact.

    Pratt Institute professor Katarina Posch, Ph.D stated that “the heart of Bakelite is the American soul” and “the material of dreams” that enabled streamline design.

    Where other chemists found a wall in trying to figure out the reaction between Phenol and Formaldehyde, Baekeland “leaned against something that turned out to be a doorway to a wide, open, world” research chemist Dr. Burkard Wagner explains. The invention ushered in an explosion of new man-made materials that marked the beginnings of our modern industrial age and changed our way of life.

    Nothing humans have created is quite like Bakelite in its versatility and varied applications. More than a century since Baekeland found success in his lab, his invention remains central to our culture, still used in hundreds of ways worldwide, from the automotive and aerospace industries to guitars that gain their unique sound from its properties.

    While Bakelite and its descendent products are essential to our daily lives, they have also created serious environmental consequences. All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic confronts this double-edged sword head-on, raising an existential conflict Leo H. Baekeland himself faced as he questioned the value of his miracle material. Decades since The Graduate touted plastic as the sure thing for a secure future, an interview in the documentary with IBM Research staff chemist Jeanette Garcia, Ph.D. offers hope to offset generations of its misuse with information about research into new, recyclable polymers.

    Throughout the film, beautifully realized period re-enactments of Baekeland—seen as a curious boy growing up in Ghent, Belgium, then as a persistent chemist and inventor in New York where he also invented Velox photo paper, and later as an old man reflecting on the toll that running the business of the Bakelite Corporation had taken on his life – humanize the world-circling industrial empire. Viewers get to know a man as hard to crack as his creation, an eccentric who longed for the solitude of sailing and nature, but also found solace through his love for family, praising his more social wife Céline as his greatest discovery.

    The film presents an inspiring, thought-provoking story that explores the promise and the pitfalls of genius and innovation.

    HEC Media will feature weekly encores throughout the month and the film will also air locally on Fox 2.2 on Sunday, August 4 at 9:30 am, during HEC’s regular time slot.

    All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic is produced by JEM Films, LLC for The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC. Executive Producer: Hugh Karraker. Director: John Maher. Follow at facebook.com/allthingsbakelite; instagram.com/allthingsbakelite; and twitter.com/bakelitethefilm. For more information about Leo Baekeland’s life and legacy and the art of Bakelite, visit www.allthingsbakelite.com.

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