The first commercially successful synthetic resin was invented over 100 years ago. The inspiration for this invention may surprise you. We have all heard of shellac, most often used as a wood finish. In the early 20th century, shellac was commonly used as an electrical insulator. As the electrical industry was expanding the demand for shellac was increasing. What everyone many not know about shellac is how it’s made; the material actually originates from the secretions of the female lac bug.
The lac beetle lives in the forests of India and Thailand where they suck the sap from trees and excrete “stick-lac” dispositing it back onto the tree. Different types of trees create different colors of excretions. The “stick-lac” is scraped from the trees and heated till it liquefies and impurities, such as bark and bugs, can be removed. After the substance is cooled, it is broken into flakes that are ground into a powder and mixed with ethyl alcohol. This process gives you the liquid shellac that we all know well. The only problem is to make enough resin to produce one pound of shellac you need 7,500 beetles eating and secreting continuously for an ENTIRE year.
This supply and demand issue created by the electric boom inspired Leo Hendrik Baekeland to come up with synthetic solution for shellac that could be used as electronic insulation. What he came up with, is the first commercially successful synthetic resin: Bakelite. He created it by mixing phenol (carbolic acid) with formaldehyde. He was by no means the first inventor to experiment with these two materials, but he was the first to create a commercially successful solution. Bakelite was invented in 1907 and first introduced at an American Chemical Society meeting in 1909. Baekeland received a patent for his “method of making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde” on December 7, 1909. Check out the original patent!
Though invented to replace shellac, Bakelite became known as “the material of 1,000 uses,” a phrase originating from Baekeland himself, though we can all agree it’s a good way to describe the resin. It was used for radios, light sockets, telephones, musical instruments, machine guns, cameras, buttons, jewelry, chess sets, poker chips and many other applications. Bakelite has since been phased out and replaced by more efficient resins in most cases. It is still being used for some electrical and automotive applications such as wire insulations and brake pads and some other items like firearm magazines and vintage style jewelry. Today Bakelite items are more nostalgic than functional, but Bakelite can be credited for initiating the start of the plastic revolution in the 20th century.