December 7, 2010

Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride is so collectible

Leo Baekeland was already an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Ghent in Belgium when he and his bride went to New York City on their honeymoon in 1889.

Leo Baekeland

He met Richard Anthony, owner of a photographic company, on that trip.  They got to talking and Baekeland described a process he’d invented to use water instead of chemicals to develop photographic plates.  Anthony offered him a job and Baekeland, who wanted to come to the US, accepted.

He worked for Anthony for two years, then set up as a consulting chemist on his own.  He developed Velox, a paper that allowed photography in artificial light, but couldn’t find investors who were interested in it until finally, in 1899, he met George Eastman, who offered him a million dollars for the rights to Velox.  Baekeland acccepted on the spot.

He bought a house, set up a state of the art lab, and started working on things that would make money.  His first goal was to find a synthetic substitute for shellac.  Shellac was made from the sticky stuff produced by coccoidea, or lac beetles, to helpthem cling to bark in colonies. (It’s also used, btw, for the outside of jelly beans.)

Kerria lacca, a lac beetle.

Baekeland concocted ‘Novolak’ as a substitute. It never caught on, but along the way, he learned a lot about polymers and what you could do with combinations of phenols and formaldehyde under heat and pressure.  The result was  a substance that was stable under high-heat conditions, perfect for radios and telephones. It was polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, aka Bakelite.

Bakelite, patented on this date in 1909, was the first plastic.  Baekeland began the age of plastics.  He never got a Nobel, but he did get a Franklin Medal and he made a lot of money.

* * *


Percy Spenser at work.

When Percy LeBaron Spenser was three years old – in 1897 – his father died.  Not long after, his mother left him with his aunt and uncle.  He never got to graduate from grammar school, being put to work in a mill at the age of 12.  When he was 18, he joined the Navy in order to learn telegraphy.  After WWI he went to work for Raytheon.

In 1941, Spenser decided that manufacturing 17 magnetrons a day just wasn’t good enough – magnetrons were what made radar work and the military really needed radar.  He figured out a quicker way and soon Raytheon was making 2,600 magnetrons a day.  The Navy gave him an award for that.

USS Savannah

One day, working with active radar, Spenser noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket was melting.  He made a box with a magnetron in it,  put some popcorn in it, set it on high and stepped outside the room.  When he returned to check the results, there was popcorn everywhere.

(IMO, the culinary usefulness of microwaves reached its zenith with that first experiment.)

Spenser had invented the microwave oven.  Raytheon’s patent was approved on this date in 1945.  The first Radarange, as they called it, was six feet high, weighed 750 pounds and cost $5,000.  It was installed in the galley of the USS Savannah, one of four nuclear-powered cargo ships.  It is still there.

* * *

It’s Pearl Harbor Day, of course.  It’s all here, It’s Eli Wallach’s birthday today – he is 95, god love him – and Jan Stewart’s. Many happy returns to them both.



  1. haha!!! bakelite! 😛


    Comment by Nina — December 7, 2010 @ 12:48 am | Reply

  2. Baekeland story too cool. Cooking up more great stories thank you Jean.


    Comment by avery — December 7, 2010 @ 7:12 am | Reply

  3. Oh! So thats how it all happened!!!
    Happy, Happy Birthday to Jan Stewart.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — December 7, 2010 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  4. happy b=day jan !!! xo ursula


    Comment by ursel — December 8, 2010 @ 9:05 am | Reply

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