All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic

All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 9:00pm - 10:00pm

Photo: Leo Baekeland

Once, all things were classified Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral. That categorization of our world changed one day in 1907, when a determined chemist discovered an entirely new kingdom of things and gave it a name: Bakelite.

It was the first wholly synthetic plastic and it ushered in an explosion of new man-made materials and objects that have since permeated our lives. John Maher's film All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic, airing Monday, September 30, 2019 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV, explores the life and work of Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the “father of modern plastics”, who was responsible for one of the most transformative discoveries of the 20th century. The primary source and impetus for this illuminating film is one of the great grandsons of Baekeland himself, Hugh Karraker, who is the film’s executive producer.

LOCAL CONNECTION: Before inventing Bakelite, the first plastic made with synthetic components, Baekeland’s first big invention was Velox, a paper for printing photographs that he sold to Kodak founder George Eastman for $750,000 in 1899. 

Maher makes history come alive as he weaves interviews with Karraker and other family members with 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, and later as an old man reflecting on the toll that running the business of the Bakelite Corporation had taken on his life. Archival footage, intimate family photos, and first-person accounts transport us back to the dawn of the modern age when individuals like Baekeland, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others led a revolution of innovation with their inventions.  

The film presents perspectives from an ensemble of accomplished scientists, historians, artists and musicians, whose occupations are neatly wrapped in plastic. These experts reveal how nothing humans have created is quite like Bakelite in its versatility and varied applications. From hard-core industrial uses to fine art creations, Bakelite is found everywhere from distributor caps to collectible jewelry.  All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic confronts this double-edged sword head-on, raising an existential conflict even Leo H. Baekeland faced as he questioned the value of his miracle material. It is an inspiring, thought-provoking story that explores the promise and the pitfalls of genius and innovation.