The plastics man; Leo Baekeland's conquest of an unyielding, brittle resin led to nylons and Tupperware

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Author: Robert Friedel
Date: Nov. 1984
From: Science '84(Vol. 5)
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,951 words

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In his last years, the old man was clearly eccentric. He would foreggo the company of his wife and family for weeks at a time. He dressed solely in white, with a pith helmet to ward off the Florida sun. When the heat became oppressive, he marched into the swimming pool on his front lawn--white suit, pith helmet, and all--then emerged to allow the evaporation from his clothes to cool him off further. A millionaire many times over, he dined on soup or beans from the can. But Leo Hendrik Baekeland could afford to be different, for he had accomplished something in his life so very different from anyone before him that the very stuff of which the world was made began to change. To plastics.

Baekeland was father to the family of versatile, exasperating, indispensable materials that would make the appearance and the very feel of the 20th century unique. The bewildering litany of names--there's polyester, polyvinyl, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, and (shorter, but no less classical sounding) nylon--testifies to the vigor of a major industry and the eagerness with which manufacturers seize upon novel materials to toughen, lighten, cheapen, dramatize, or diversify their products. More significantly, they testify to the mastery over materials that is one of the greatest triumphs of 20th-century science and technology.

In the last half of the 19th century, the once murky field of organic chemistry had become a source of intellectual accomplishment and material gain. First slowly and then ever more rapidly, chemists sorted out the ways in which nature combined the carbon atom with a few other simple elements (mostly hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) to build living things. Soon chemists were seeking to imitate nature, synthesizing more complex organic compounds from simpler ones.

As so often happens in sicence, the treasures turned up were frequently unexpected. In 1856, trying to synthesize the drug quinine from a residue of coal tar, william Henry Perkin, a young student in a London chemistry laboratory, instead came up with a deep purple substance that turned out to be a splendid dye. It and its successors created an industry, changed the face of fashion forever, and alerted chemists everywhere to the wealth and fame that successful synthesis held out to the lucky and persistent.

For much of the rest of the century, organic chemists synthesized a seemingly endless round of flavorings, fragrances, and pharmaceuticals, as well as bright and novel dyes. Their success helped found the belief that technology depended on science for its triumphs. In fact, much work was done by applying a limited range of experimental methods to a host of different substances.

This largely empirical approach created as many questions as it did answers. Take, for example, phenols and adlehydes, two relatively simple classes of organic materials. Phenols belong to the large class of compounds that organic chemists refer to as cyclic, from the pattern of their basic carbon chain. They are...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Friedel, Robert. "The plastics man; Leo Baekeland's conquest of an unyielding, brittle resin led to nylons and Tupperware." Science '84, vol. 5, 1984, p. 49+. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  

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